TOPICS > Science

NewsHour’s Miles O’Brien on moving forward after an accident led to amputation

March 7, 2014 at 5:53 PM EDT
Miles O'Brien has traveled the world for the NewsHour, often to dangerous places, such as his recent trip to the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. Last month, an injury during another reporting trip in the Philippines became life-threatening and resulted in the amputation of his left arm. He joins Judy Woodruff to talk about what happened.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Miles O’Brien has traveled the world for the NewsHour, and at times to very dangerous places, as he did for his current series of reports from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. The third installment in that series will air on Tuesday, the anniversary of the tsunami that destroyed it.

After leaving Japan, he traveled to the Philippines for other upcoming stories. There, he dropped a heavy camera case on his left arm. The injury became life-threatening. And, during emergency surgery, Miles’ left arm was amputated above the elbow.

He’s now back home here. And he joins us to talk about what happened, plus a little of Fukushima.

Miles, we are so glad to see you.

MILES O’BRIEN: Judy, it’s good to be here. It’s good to be anywhere. Good to be alive.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you know, people think reporting is a glamorous profession. You were over in Asia reporting on your own. You were, as you said, in Japan. You were doing your own camera work, sound. You were doing your own reporting.

You’re in the Philippines, and then this accident happens.


You know, being a one-man band is — comes with its own set of risks. Being a journalist comes with its own set of risks. But I suspect if we had been talking about this before the accident, we would be thinking about perhaps a trip to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant or a war zone.

And, sometimes, it’s the heavy case filled with gear that you need to be careful of. And that’s what I found.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it landed on your arm. You eventually got to the hospital.


It began as a bruise. And it just got a lot worse after about a day or so. And the pain got worse. And it — there was swelling. And it got me increasingly nervous when I saw some discoloration and ultimately some numbness in my hand. And when that happened, I knew I couldn’t deny it any longer. I had to get some medical help.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And by the time you saw a doctor, they pretty quickly identified it, you said, as acute compartment syndrome.

MILES O’BRIEN: That’s correct.

I had — literally had to Wiki it with my phone, because I never heard of compartment syndrome. And I’m just very grateful that the doctor there saw it for what it was, because it’s a very — very much a life-threatening situation.

Essentially, what I found out very quickly is that your muscles and veins and some of your tissue sits inside kind of a sheathing, which is like the insulation on wire cable. But that sheathing doesn’t expand. And if there’s some sort of inflammation or something that causes swelling inside there, the pressure builds, and there’s no place for the blood to go.

And what happens is, the blood flow cuts off. And the thing to do is an emergency fasciotomy, which actually cuts the sheathing, if you will.


MILES O’BRIEN: Unfortunately, that was the goal. They told me going in, though, that, if things don’t go well, you might lose your arm.

And I, of course, hoped for the best. When I woke up, I thought I felt my arm, but, unfortunately, things didn’t go for the best.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Miles, for the last three weeks, you have been without your left arm and with a lot of pain, one assumes.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes, what happens — it’s interesting.

The pain, when you lose a limb, is in what is absent. Phantom limb pain is very — it’s an amazingly — well, it’s interesting on one level, as a reporter, this whole — the way your brain is wired. But it’s also incredibly painful.

My — I — I feel my hand, in a way, more acutely than I ever did when I had it. It’s clenched up. It’s like it’s in a vice practically. And, at times, it can be extremely painful.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re feeling all that right now?

MILES O’BRIEN: Oh, yes, absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How are you dealing with this? I mean, you are — I know you as somebody with limitless energy, always on the go. How you coping?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, you know, it’s interesting.

You got to — it’s a little bit about, like, focus. You have a choice in life, wherever you are in life, to kind of — you know, I love what Winston Churchill said. You know, if you’re going through hell, just keep going.

And part of keep going is, there’s some real wisdom in that. Here I was in a situation where I — one of my first thoughts was, here I went to Japan, went to the Fukushima Daiichi plant. I felt very strongly about getting those stories out. And I didn’t want to lose that opportunity.

And so I started focusing on my work. And it was really an important and good tonic for me. I suspect I will have to pay the piper a little bit later, but it got me through a very tough time, just by focusing on doing these stories.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re not just a reporter. You’re a science reporter, so you have been looking — you have been looking at what happened to you very closely.

You have also, you told me, been getting a lot of advice from people who have heard about this.


It’s interesting. I — I have heard — of course, one of the things you would think about in a situation like this when you’re in a country like that, would things have been different if it had happened here in the U.S.? Would I still have my arm?

I asked my doctor that question. And he said, probably not, because the way this compartment syndrome manifests itself, the symptoms show up kind of late in the game. And then I heard from a lot of people who had been through it and have had their limbs salvaged, and they live a life of great suffering, because the limb is so damaged and painful.

So those are the kind of things that, when the thing happens, you just have to move on, and not second-guess those kinds of things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you — here you are. You have already been back reporting. You finished — you have put pieces — we have already ran two — have run two pieces you did on Fukushima on the “NewsHour.”

You’re working on another piece. You’re a pilot, Miles.


JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you — how do you think about the future right now?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, that — there are things that, you know, I have conquered. I can do my stories. And I can — I tied this tie today. I’m very proud of those kind of little things.

But I do like…

JUDY WOODRUFF: It looks good.

MILES O’BRIEN: Thank you very much.


MILES O’BRIEN: I do like to fly airplanes.

And so I was at the National Rehabilitation Hospital the other day, a fantastic facility right here in Washington. And I said, I really like to ride my bike. I like to fly airplanes. And I want to be able to get back to shooting video. Those are my three big criteria.

They were like, oh, no problem. We have attachments for all of that. It’s like Inspector Gadget or something. And so part of my science and technology mind as a reporter is thinking, this is — this is kind of interesting, how this all works and the technology.

And, sadly, the reason that the technology has progressed so much is because of the wars and because of the limb loss associated with that. But I, fortunately, will benefit from some of that technology.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what do you say to all those people out there who are watching who — you know, whose hearts go out to you, who — who want the best for you? What do you say to them?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, first of all, thank you.

I haven’t been able to get back with everybody. I have heard from so many of all of them out there. And I just appreciate the concern and the show of love. And, you know, I — this is not the way you want to find out that you’re loved.

But it really — it was wonderful. What I want people to know most — more than anything is that — not to worry about me, that I will be OK. I can figure this out. It’s — it’s surmountable. It’s not fun. It’s not something I would wish on anybody, but it can be done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, all of your friends are just absolutely in awe of you, Miles.

Miles O’Brien, thank you for coming by.

MILES O’BRIEN: You’re welcome.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we look forward to many, many years of continuing to work with you.

MILES O’BRIEN: Thank you.