During the critical hours after Bears tight end Zach Miller dislocated his left knee in the third quarter Sunday, doctors performed emergency surgery at University Medical Center in New Orleans to save his lower leg from potential amputation.
They repaired the torn popliteal artery in the back of his left knee by grafting a vein from his right leg, coach John Fox said Monday. The artery is the main source of blood for his lower leg, whose muscles could not survive for more than six or eight hours without blood flow.
Asked about avoiding amputation, Fox said doctors “feel good about where he’s at right now” after the stabilizing surgery. Miller has a strong pulse, blood is flowing in his leg and his foot is warm to the touch, which is a good sign.
After his knee buckled while making an apparent touchdown catch — which was later overturned by replay — Miller was carted off the field and taken to UMC. He will remain hospitalized in New Orleans, where his wife, Kristen, his father and Bears medical staffers are by his side. Fox said Miller “won’t be coming back to Chicago anytime real soon.”
Miller, who turned 33 this month, faces an arduous recovery process to resume normal life. His football career is likely over.
Knee dislocations typically feature the tearing of all four major ligaments — the anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate, medial collateral and lateral collateral — and can feature nerve damage as well as the tearing of the artery.
Fixing the artery takes precedence, said Steven Levin, an orthopedic surgeon and sports-medicine specialist at NorthShore University HealthSystem. Doctors must then stabilize his knee, likely with an external fixator, a cagelike device, to protect the repaired artery.
Levin, who does not treat Miller, said knee dislocations are most commonly caused by high-speed car accidents.
“It’s your worst nightmare as an orthopedic surgeon in the field,” Levin said. “It’s a devastating injury.”
Back at Halas Hall, Miller’s teammates were shocked that his leg had been at risk.
“I didn’t really want to believe it,” wide receiver Tre McBride said. “I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t realize that that was even a possible consequence of having a dislocated knee. So when I heard that, that was the last thing I was expecting to hear. . . . But I’m glad that he’s doing well, and I’m sending him all the positive energy that I can.”
Miller is perhaps the Bears’ most beloved teammate. Players cite his positive attitude and infectious personality that belie a snakebit injury history. Since 2011, Miller has had season-ending injuries to his shoulder, Achilles tendon, left foot and right foot. Miller, who was second on the team with 236 receiving yards, is in the last season of a two-year, $5.5 million contract.
“It’s unfortunate to lose a guy like Zach, the leader of the team,” defensive end Jonathan Bullard said. “He’s just in our thoughts and prayers throughout the whole team and the organization. We’re all here for him, anything we can do for him or his family. It’s just a bad situation.”
Fox called Kristen Miller on Monday, and Zach, from his hospital bed, beckoned for the phone, then told Fox that his overturned catch should have counted for a touchdown.
“That’s just him, and it’s genuine,” Fox said. “It’s real, and I just kind of shared that back. He’s got all our love and prayers coming his way. He was basically telling us to hang in there. But that’s him. That’s just the kind of person he is and the kind of teammate he is.”
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