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CNN SPECIAL REPORTS

Miles O'Brien: A Life Lost and Found

Aired March 10, 2015 - 21:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: Hello and welcome to this CNN's special report. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. For the next hour I'm going to bring you a story that maybe hard to believe. It's a personal story for me because the subject of this hour is my friend, Miles O'Brien, a reporter, and a CNN analyst.

As journalist we usually don't report on our friends, but Mile's story is extraordinary. A little over a year ago he suffered a life changing accident after a case of camera equipment fell and hit his left forearm, yet left this ugly painful bruise. And Miles did what I think most of us would have done, he brushed it off. He thought it was just a bruise and that he'll be fine, but 48 hours later Miles was in surgery fighting for his life and ended up losing his left arm above the elbow.

It was a tough time for Miles. A loss of his arm so dramatic, he even thought about taking his own life. And this next hour I'll explain exactly how and why this happened. And also taking inside Mile's life as he shares with us his dark times, his challenges and his triumphs.

MILES O'BRIEN: I woke up and I was in this room and I felt my arm just it has been there before and I thought I dodged a bullet. And I look down and I realized I could barely believe what I saw.

GUPTA: Miles O'Brien's life was changed forever after waking up from surgery for assumingly minor accident. His ordeal hard to believe but it could happen to anyone. Miles had always loved adventure. As a kid his father would take him flying. As an adult he learned to fly on his own.

Running, biking, scuba diving, even sky diving, they were all hobbies for Miles and that's just his personal one. In his 30 years as a journalist, Miles traveled the world using his personal interest and expertise to report on stories about space and aviation. In fact he even attempted to go in the space after NASA agreed to take him on a mission. He would have been the first journalist to fly in the space shuttle.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right. Miles back over to you.

O'BRIEN: All right. I got a little problem on the Space Shuttle Columbia, it has been out of communication now for the past 12 minutes. GUPTA: With the tragic explosion of the Shuttle Columbia ended that program. Miles is a sortie guy who always seems to have the right answers, a solution for every problem, hard work, risky trips, all are regular part of Mile's life. So when Miles had a chance to visit the failed nuclear reactors in Fukushima Japan last February for PBS, he jumped with the chance.

O'BRIEN: As the ground water passes through the pump, it gets mixed in with a contaminated water that is used to clear the melted down cores.

GUPTA: We as journalist, we sometimes do dangerous assignments, you know, you and I both cover this types of dangerous assignments over the years. And I remember sort of, you know, of course you know something that can happen.

O'BRIEN: Prior to this trip when I got injured, the time I got nervous, we're doing those crazy hurricane live shots.

We are in a much more shelter spot. Spots, well (inaudible).

So on this particular trip I would have guess going to Fukushima and, you know, the damaged reactors...

GUPTA: All right.

O'BRIEN: ... at Fukushima would have been my highest risk part of the trip.

GUPTA: On this trip Miles traveled alone, he did it all, shooting, editing, reporting.

O'BRIEN: I was on a one man van reporting tour.

GUPTA: After finishing a story in Japan, Miles though the risk is over and he headed to the Philippines for another story.

O'BRIEN: People here in the Philippines are working to add vitamin A to the daily staple, rice.

GUPTA: He shot a story and packed up his camera gear into hard cover cases called pelican cases with the intention of taking a break to visit the beach before finally heading home to Washington D.C. He had no idea he's life was about too change forever.

O'BRIEN: I had, you know, all the gear in pelican cases, one of them - the heaviest one as it happens, 60 some what pounds. I was trying to bungee it and it's just kind of top all over the top of the car, it was not high and I was down low trying to connect the bungee cords and it's hit my forearm and it was -- it hurt. You know, I was really -- I knew I hurt myself but it was a bruise, you know, it's a bruise and I want to go to beach, you know, and I was like, "Well, you know, this will be OK, I wasn't leaving for couple a days."

GUPTA: The bruise hurt but Miles thought it's just a bruise. After all it wasn't a dramatic incident like a car crash or sky diving accident, it was just a case that fell and hit his arm. So Miles did what we all do to, what, we ignore the pain, hoping it would just go away. It turned out to be an honest but nearly fatal mistake.

GUPTA: And so you say bruise?

O'BRIEN: Yeah, yeah. I mean, you know, it got kind of ugly but, you know, I have a bruise, and I really want to go to beach. And so I -- it's like, you know, I'm going to denial. I wasn't going to run to. You know, I was in the Philippines I didn't have medical infrastructure right there at my fingertips. So that was on the 12th of February. And by the night of the 13th end of the 14th it's -- the pain started to -- it got worst. And by the time I get up in the morning I knew it was like shooting and troubling pain, it was very -- it was obvious, it was something much more than a bruise.

GUPTA: Miles found an English speaking doctor and told him it look like a textbook case with acute compartment syndrome, it was the first time Miles ever heard the term.

O'BRIEN: He said this and I literally was trying to Wiki what I had. And, you know, I didn't like what I read.

GUPTA: Acute compartment syndrome occurs when the pressure increases inside an area of the body that hassles as muscles, veins, arteries, and nerves. It's usually to due to bleeding and swelling. Because that compartment is covered by a tough unforgiving layer of connected tissue known as fascia, when the swelling gets worse, the muscle has nowhere to go. Everything gets squeezed and eventually the blood flow to the arm is disrupted. This is critical, without a steady flow of oxygen and nutrients to the arm, nerve and muscle cells begin to die.

If left untreated, it can be fatal. As the muscle dies it releases toxins that can cause kidney failure. Miles' arm, 48 hours after the accident was dying. That's when he finally went to the hospital.

And what did your arm look like at this point?

O'BRIEN: It was, you know, it was like kind of, you know, it was swollen and it was kind of yellowish. It was not a pretty bruise it was -- and then what it happened too is that it, you know, there was like numbness in my hand and started to get discolor, that's what I got really nervous.

GUPTA: What did the doctor do at that point?

O'BRIEN: He said "We need get to a surgery right away to do a fasciotomy."

GUPTA: A fasciotomy is an incision into the fascia to help relive the pressure that built up from swelling muscles in acute compartment syndrome. Timing is crucial, every minute counts after the blood flow is cut off.

When he was taking me back to surgery at that point where you sort of thinking I've waited too long, I think...

O'BRIEN: Yes.

GUPTA: ... that's the...

O'BRIEN: Yeah, that's been a problem. You know, it's an area that I don't want to go down too much because that takes me to the dark place, doesn't it, right? I could second guess my own actions.

GUPTA: Miles was rushed into the operating room. At that point, he thought he could still be treated, but complications from the compartment syndrome caused Miles' blood pressure to rapidly fall during the procedure. And so, with Miles still under anesthesia, the doctor made a decision to amputate Miles' arm above the elbow. A painful decision that had to be made and probably saved his life.

O'BRIEN: I could barely believe what I saw. I mean, you know, it's amazing that, you know, it felt like it was there, it really did, so -- but it wasn't.

GUPTA: Miles was alive but he was in denial over what have just happened to him.

O'BRIEN: I don't think we're very good human beings in general, are good in perceiving what our real risks are, right? You tell people you're going to Fukushima, they go, "You're crazy." You tell people I'm stacking up some pelican cases, they say, "So what?" Our perception risk it does not match the reality. And I have learned that in a very painful way.

GUPTA: The denial was so string. Miles left the hospital two days after his operation and checked into a hotel. He didn't tell anyone that his arm was gone. Not his family, not his friends, not his coworkers, no one knew. Instead Miles went to work riding the story he shot in Japan and in the Philippines.

O'BRIEN: Denial in this case is a pretty powerful copping to and it got me to this early days because I knew more than anything that, you know, this horrible thing had happened. But I wanted as soon as possible to get back to my life.

GUPTA: This was going to be harder than he could ever imagine. He tried to throw himself back into his work but simply struggling to type with just one hand was an immediate and stark reminder of what had happened. For a guy who would always had the solutions, here was a new set of problems that he didn't have answers to.

Alone in that hotel room, Miles plunged into a dark place.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: So, what I have thought that the case dropping on my arm would have been, you know, something that would have case me a life changing accident never in a million years, never in a million years.

GUPTA: After his accident, Miles was trying to cope with the traumatic loss with his arm. He was all alone in a foreign country in a hotel room. They're saying at that hospital that you're getting what you need.

O'BRIEN: Right.

GUPTA: But you haven't -- you have no family or friends there with you.

O'BRIEN: I just needed to be quite. I needed to be on my own and do a little bit of processing. And so that's what I did. And, you know, I actually started writing those scripts.

GUPTA: Writing scripts, throwing himself back into his work. That was Miles' coping mechanism. The stories were important him. He wanted to make sure they were finished. But days had now pass since the operation. And he still hasn't told anyone what happened, that his arm was gone.

We're you grieving?

O'BRIEN: Well I mean to the extent that denial is the first stage of grieve, yeah. I mean I think that's the first stage for me but it was grieving in the sense of sobbing all day, no. That's not what I did. I was in -- I guess crisis survival mode.

GUPTA: The self-imposed isolation lasted for more than a week. A week with Miles just stayed hold up in his hotel room.

GUPTA: And I'm so interested in that week, the week of solitude, the week of...

O'BRIEN: Yeah.

GUPTA: ... reflection.

O'BRIEN: Yeah.

GUPTA: The week of pain.

O'BRIEN: Yeah.

GUPTA: The week of stages of grief.

O'BRIEN: Yeah.

GUPTA: And what was that week?

O'BRIEN: Scripting and...

GUPTA: Busying yourself with work.

O'BRIEN: Busying.

GUPTA: What was that? Was that...

O'BRIEN: Actually, I did some conference calls and talk to some people and... GUPTA: You had...

O'BRIEN: (inaudible), yeah.

GUPTA: You price (ph) and e-mails the people and...

O'BRIEN: Sure.

GUPTA: ... they had no inclination.

O'BRIEN: Yeah.

GUPTA: You just happen to...

O'BRIEN: Yeah, yeah.

GUPTA: That is a --I understand the denial thing. That's really striking to me. Do you try to prove something.

O'BRIEN: Yeah. That I was still me. I was still me.

GUPTA: But Miles knew is life is fundamentally changed forever. There was a dark time of insecurity of physical and emotional pain that he almost didn't (inaudible).

O'BRIEN: I wasn't ready, I wasn't ready. I needed to just process. I needed to make sure I could do a few things. Make sure I was going to be reasonably OK before I could tell anyone. I didn't want to be a wreck with all these uncertainties.

GUPTA: After a little more than a week, Miles just told he could go home. And he finally felt he was strong enough to talk about what had happened.

Your kids were first.

O'BRIEN: You want to -- you always want to be superman to your kids, right? And you know, superman had a clipped wing here. And...

GUPTA: And they love you, and they wanted to support you, and they acted in the way than surprised even you, their father.

O'BRIEN: They could have been more supportive and loving. It was just such a wonderful parental moment. And I -- why I ever was afraid of that. Shame on me, I wasn't giving my kids enough credit.

GUPTA: Soon after he told his family, Miles went public. He wrote a story in his blog. He outlined exactly what happened to him telling everyone he is grateful to be alive and he's now facing a new reality. "Life is all about playing the hand that that is dealt you," he wrote. "Actually, I would love somebody to deal me another hand right about now in more ways than one".

And I remember I heard about it when, you know, you wrote and posting and you told people. It punched me on the gut, I don't know how to describe because I know you and I don't know what it is. You just, you can't imagine the sorts of things happening.

When you wrote something like that, did you imagine how people would think about you or what the impact it would have in them?

O'BRIEN: I wanted to make sure that story was right. You know, I was thinking like a journalist, that's what I was doing, really. But it also -- it was a little bit of therapy for me too. It was an opportunity to, you know, sort of put down in words what had happened. And I knew that, you know, this is the first step toward my new life.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Six, seven, eight, nine.

GUPTA: A new life, and as Miles put it a new reality.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just relax.

O'BRIEN: Yeah.

GUPTA: But sometimes the body refuses to accept a new reality. Miles can still feel his arm. His brain still sending signals that is missing limb is there.

What do you feel right now?

O'BRIEN: It's almost like -- well, you know, imagine like when your foot goes to sleep or you hand goes to sleep and as it is waking up and you get the sensation back and it's kind of partially numb and kind of tingly, that's kind of the feeling it like I have almost all the time there.

And then on occasion I get, you know, kind of these electrical jolts or what seem like twitches in my missing fingers.

GUPTA: Yes.

O'BRIEN: It's a really bizarre experience to have sensation and pain in a place that doesn't exist, except in your mind, right?

GUPTA: This is common among amputees. More than 80 percent still feel their missing limb in the early days after an amputation. It's called phantom limb syndrome. We don't know exactly how or why it happens, but some theories suggest the brain is rewiring itself after the loss of input from an amputated limb.

And so it reassigned the sensations of that limb to a different part of the body. In Miles' case, if you touch his chest, he feels it in his missing arm.

O'BRIEN: The other thing, Sunjay, when I do this, I feel it in the tip of my fingers.

GUPTA: Is that right?

O'BRIEN: Yeah. When I do this, I feel it in my fingers. And there's a place in the bottom of my heel that I discovered in the massage.

GUPTA: The rewiring of the brain can often result in phantom pain as well. A limb maybe missing but the pain is very real.

O'BRIEN: I just got (inaudible) by the way. It's kind of like electrical jolt...

GUPTA: And the phantom...

O'BRIEN: Yeah, yeah, it just happened. Yes. So I think some of it too is -- think when you're actually focused on it too, it tends to be more problem.

GUPTA: These phantom sensations usually subside over time. Medicine can help. And in Miles' case, medical marijuana has worked the best.

He's also tried mirror therapy which is designed to full the brain into thinking that missing limb is still there.

O'BRIEN: Basically what I'm doing is I am placing my sound hand in front of a mirror, so it looks like I have my missing hand. And then what I'm doing is I am matching the movements that I've making right now and the positioning of my phantom hand with the sound hand. So when I was like, I'm concentrating down, I'm moving my thumb of my phantom hand then I'm going to match the movement with my sound hand.

So my brain looks at this and thinks "Oh, you're moving that missing thumb. And oh, there's a thumb." It's not so it's not missing anymore.

GUPTA: It's a temporary relief from the discomfort. But the larger questions loomed in his mind, could he ever get back to doing the things he loved like biking or flying his own plane.

O'BRIEN: I'm 55 years old. And I'll be darned, if I'm going to waste a single day. And, you know, yes, it's -- that there are moments, there are private moments when it's very difficult. But I am going to present to the world something that should be pitied.

GUPTA: Pity is perhaps Mile's biggest fear, so he keeps pushing forward and his doctors, therapist, and friends all agree is not letting his injury stop him in any way.

But only months after losing an arm, doing too much too soon can be dangerous.

O'BRIEN: I hit the speed bump and...

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: So its crystal can too. (inaudible) I want to get better page and see more about her.

GUPTA: That is so amazing.

O'BRIEN: And that's -- if it's 9000 maybe in the bar for a 225 or 230.

It's unbelievable. GUPTA: Months into his recovery and Miles us using Youtube and Google

to find information on how amputees can better live their lives.

O'BRIEN: He really looks very (inaudible) about it.

GUPTA: Pretty good.

Everything from tying a tie with the one hand.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You put through.

GUPTA: To flying a plane with no hands.

GUPTA: Jessica Cox was born with no arms. And she flies an airplane.

O'BRIEN: It sounds flip but, you know, it's kind of a great time to be an amputee. You know, because I can -- I have like the worlds resources right here. And I can reach them with one hand literally.

GUPTA: All the resources of the internet have helped Miles with relearning everyday tasks that most of us don't even think twice about. How do you cut open a bagel? How do you open a jar with just one hand?

O'BRIEN: That's a one handed cutting board. And the way it works is it has suction cups on the button.

It's amazing Sanjay, you know, in some cases, I've gotten, you know, herb therapist, (inaudible), but this was, you know, somebody send an e-mail like with in days after I put that blog post out, like you've got to get dycem, D-Y-C-E-M. And so I've looked it up and sticky on both sides. It never losses its stick. I love to know how they invented this probably some mistake, probably trying to make a posted note or, you know, some weird thing happened or maybe a nuclear bomb and this came out, right?

So what this do is, you know, if I try to open that jar, I gotten going nowhere, right?

GUPTA: Yeah.

O'BRIEN: But on this...

GUPTA: That's great.

O'BRIEN: It words. So that's really useful for a lot of tha...

We're going to try it right now, first time ever, here is whether works or not.

GUPTA: Miles isn't really a one step at the time so of person. He's more like five steps at the time. While dealing with the everyday needs, he's also trying to learn how to get back to his active lifestyle as quickly as possible. Miles wanted to be up and running, literally running soon after his amputation. It may have been part of his denial of his injury and it didn't end well. You know, running and then we fell.

O'BRIEN: Right.

GUPTA: And so, what happened?

O'BRIEN: Well, so of course, you know, I was thinking, I can ruin. There's no problem. And, you know, I'm already off balance being, you know, I don't know, eight pounds light on one side, whatever it is. And as I hit the uneven sidewalk, reach with my missing arm, that's not good, broke my nose. I have this bloody face and as I'm kind of picking up my -- literally picking the concrete out of my face, it was like, God this is really sucks.

The woman who was nearby was the husband, she looked at me and she was horrified, she said, "Oh my God, look at his arm." And I said, don't worry, it hadn't happen today, she started laughing, it was like. You know, what he's going to say.

GUPTA: Coping mechanism for you but you also put her at ease and then...

O'BRIEN: But that goes back to where I was telling you, the people do respond to how you respond to it, you know. And, you know, I want people to, you know, I see people as I walked in the side walk, you know, and a lot of people just like, look away, you know, and I hate that, I hate that.

COOPER: Miles O'Brien, first of all let me just say it's great to have you back on CNN.

GUPTA: You know Miles is a television guy, he used to putting on a good face, but none of these is easy. Scratch just one layer below the surface and there's a lot of hurt and frustration there, and perhaps still a layer of denial, which propels him to take these chances, and push himself so hard to get back to where he was.

After the fall, Miles' amputated arm was badly swollen, setting back his physical therapy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So pain goes right down into here?

O'BRIEN: Yeah, and it's like, this is like really bad spot in there. That too, yeah.

GUPTA: Dr. Alex Dromer from the National Rehabilitation Hospital in D.C. has been helping Miles through his recovery.

ALEXANDER DROMERICK: Miles and I have a relationship where he tells me what he's done, rather than what he's going to do, so I find out afterwards. You can view that two ways, you can view it from, we must keep him safe perspective or you can view it, from this is a guy who's living his life the way he's choosing to, he's smart, he can make choices.

GUPTA: Arm amputations in the United States are much rarer than leg amputations. The best estimates puts the number of about 40,000, so not a lot. Arm amputees also tend to be physically active risk takers. It's often the cause of their amputation in the first place.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Arm amputees are really cool, they're a little wild and crazy, in the sense that they are really interesting people and many of them got their amputation or lost their arm because they're, you know they're interesting people doing interesting things that are may be physically risky, so they may be sky divers, motor cyclist, marines, people who take physical risk. A lot of the folks of arm amputation reject the prosthetic limb.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Check it out, pull it down...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: New model?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... let's see what we got.

GUPTA: But Miles does need a prosthetic limb for certain activities, like biking. And he wanted to get back to training as soon as possible. Before the accident, Miles was planning on a 300 mile charity bike ride across Michigan in honor of his sister who died of cancer.

O'BRIEN: I look at this and I said, oh, I can ride, I can figure this out, there's a gadget for me.

GUPTA: So he again, researched online and found different ways arm amputees can ride a bicycle. He started off with this.

O'BRIEN: Let me pop this in, like so, so you have to get a hand for every occasion.

GUPTA: A plastic grip that hooks onto the handle bar.

O'BRIEN: It's still a little bit like I'm learning how to ride a bike again. I might as well be five years old. I'm 55, I might as well be five.

GUPTA: It seems to work. But then a second.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Miles, what happened?

O'BRIEN: I was speed bump, and not exactly sure why I went head over heels, it was like, I don't know if I can do this, we don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you fall forward?

O'BRIEN: Yeah. I fell right over.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you think you lost your balance?

O'BRIEN: Yeah, I definitely lost my balance. I don't know what happened. I hit the speed bump and I might have been braking when I hit it, that could have been it, that would have been a bad thing. But you know, it's almost as a matter, I mean, it would've been something that, you know, with two arms have recovered, just fine, I just don't know if this is -- I don't know if I can do this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GUPTA: Setbacks are a regular part of Miles O'Brien's life now. Learning to live with one arm has been challenging especially since he is so active. He fell and broke his nose while running. He also fell off his bike multiple times while training for 300 miles charity ride.

O'BRIEN: The idea of, you know, just sitting around and thinking about my plight and wondering when I might -- could run again or just going out and trying it. For me the latter is the obvious course of action, so I don't run the same way anymore. I run looking very carefully where I'm running. So a lot of it is -- it wasn't so much that I shouldn't have run at that point, I was running as if I had two arms and nothing had happened and so, I don't run the same way, I don't ride the bike the same way, but I'm still doing it.

GUPTA: Miles haven't changed his physical approach to life, so looking at him, you can see that he's changed his emotional approach as well. The support he received after finally sharing his story of his accident was surprising to Miles and overwhelming.

O'BRIEN: Reading the emails that came in, I had no idea, I had no idea how people who I love, people who I know, and people who I don't know from (inaudible) care and offered support and love, friendship. It helped and that's such a powerful gift. But I had never been a good recipient of that, ever in my life.

GUPTA: Reading the e-mails that poured in, kept Miles going in the early days after his accident.

You got a ton of e-mails, right?

O'BRIEN: Yeah.

GUPTA: You know I send you e-mail.

O'BRIEN: Yeah. Let's go find yours it would be right in the time, right? Let's see when you -- yeah. Let's see Sanjay.

OK. So this is right around -- all right, yeah, there we go. Dear Miles, Sanjay here. The thing about your nonstop. You went one arm, right? You're fortunate my friend. I know you forget many times but I'm so sorry for your ordeal. Don't (inaudible) here. We're all thinking about you and wishing you the very best." Many of my stories were shared to day. This is kind of why I don't read this stuff. And I just...

GUPTA: What is it?

O'BRIEN: I just...

GUPTA: What is it that makes you cry?

O'BRIEN: This means me so much to me. Yeah, someone like you who were friend and you (inaudible) people like that. I don't know. That's what I'm talking about. Is just, I guess I'd never recognize that stuff. And shame at me, right? I don't like never, I guess.

GUPTA: I've never seen my friend Miles this emotional. This vulnerable but it's all part of the human process.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This guy had a traumatic event, out of the blue. He did not cause it. He was not expecting it. He had no time to prepare for it. There are consequences, you know, psychologically, emotionally and socially to that.

GUPTA: Oh men. That's nice. That's a good look.

Miles's body may have changed but his goals haven't. Most importantly, fly a plane again and completing 300-mile bike ride across Michigan.

O'BRIEN: No, no problem.

GUPTA: The original prosthetic for his bike ride didn't really work. So Miles and his therapist make some adjustment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think a little bit tighter.

O'BRIEN: Yeah.

GUPTA: And came up with this.

O'BRIEN: OK. Want to do that, it (inaudible) in a few times. It's good.

GUPTA: With his new arm, Miles, he was more confident in his bike.

O'BRIEN: I have nothing that need to adjusting.

GUPTA: He feels he is now ready to head to Michigan to try and complete 300-mile charity bike ride.

O'BRIEN: I want to go. All right, relax and loaded.

GUPTA: It's a beautiful July morning and I'm joining Miles on the ride. I think I'm less ready than he is. And remember, he just suffered arm amputation five months ago.

O'BRIEN: So, you know, it's not as good as the real thing but it's really good.

GUPTA: Feeling good?

O'BRIEN: Yeah, how about you?

GUPTA: All right.

We're feeling good, focus on the ride and Miles is about to open up to me, about the most painful time for him after the amputation.

I worried that you may have been suicidal at that time.

O'BRIEN: Well.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: It's done.

GUPTA: Just months after a life threatening surgery, Miles is speeding through his recovery. He's running and biking again and now wants to tackle one of his biggest challenges.

You're known to be a pilot?

O'BRIEN: Yeah.

GUPTA: You want to do that again?

O'BRIEN: Absolutely.

GUPTA: What is the biggest limitation, biggest obstacle to actually doing it?

O'BRIEN: Landing. Safely.

GUPTA: I like it. No hesitation, it goes up.

O'BRIEN: It's really that's a problem. You got to land it. But I'm going to figure it out, I really am, I'm going to MacGyver that one, somehow.

GUPTA: And he does. Miles has found the way to get back up in the air.

O'BRIEN: I'm Miles and this is my idea, this may be my first flight, driving, well, with one arm.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now, tell me about the arm.

O'BRIEN: Well, it's missing, if you should see it anywhere, please let me know, actually be kind of gruesome. All right so we do a walk around or we want to...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Master off now, (inaudible) off.

GUPTA: Miles has been a licensed pilot since 1988, and has logged 2300 hours.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Some of the gas locks.

O'BRIEN: All right yup.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Make sure (inaudible) hinges are secure and they move without any binding.

O'BRIEN: All right, that looks good. GUPTA: But this is his first flight after the amputation. One arm

flying is tricky, usually one hand is on the throttle which controls the power and the other is used to steer. Miles hooks his prosthetic arm under the throttle. His instructor is behind him with his own set of controls in case there's a problem.

O'BRIEN: So let's try this and see, it has a little fold there and I think I can...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That actually works way better than I thought. It keep it from slipping off.

O'BRIEN: That's the slipping off part is what I'm worried about.

GUPTA: After the routine safety checks, they're ready to take off.

O'BRIEN: All right, sort of that. This is kind of fun. This should be fun no matter how many limbs you had. I think it's doable but it's a little bit intimidating.

GUPTA: The flight and the landing, was success.

O'BRIEN: That was tons of fun. Holy god. I pretty much did it, pretty much, what do you think pal?

GUPTA: I think you did it.

Miles goes up in the air several more times, after that first flight.

O'BRIEN: After that. That's interesting. That can be interesting to try that.

GUPTA: Trying different planes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So we are good to start. Clear prop.

GUPTA: Seeing what feels comfortable, he's preparing himself to one day fly on his own again. Each time, a perfect landing.

O'BRIEN: Thank you my friend. That was great.

GUPTA: His first few flights go smoothly for Miles. He's learning to bike again just perhaps a bigger challenge.

O'BRIEN: I can't get thumbs up but I go down.

But just five months after his accident, Miles is participating 300 miles charity ride across Michigan.

It feels good (inaudible).

O'BRIEN: I feel great

GUPTA: You look great.

We just started our first lane, and we're both feeling good. Miles's new prosthetic arm is holding up extremely well,

Most people watching could not imagine doing this 300 mile, well, bicycle ride.

O'BRIEN: I don't want people to get the wrong idea. This is not for everyone. This is -- anybody as their own pasture (ph), it's a ride quite literally.

GUPTA: It's not a race, it's a ride, so we don't have to worry about time. We can bike at a comfortable pace. Comfortable enough for us to talk. And on this beautiful summer morning, we go back to those dark days after Miles first lost his arm, when he was at that hotel room alone and staying silent about what had happened to him.

So those nine days...

O'BRIEN: Yeah.

GUPTA: When you say you don't want to go there, was does that mean? You don't think you'd come back?

O'BRIEN: Yeah, yeah. I don't think I'd be me again.

GUPTA: It was tough to ask this next question, especially to a close friend. But I'd always wondered what was really going through his mind those first few days after his amputation?

I worried that you may have been suicidal at that time.

O'BRIEN: Well, I could see myself get in there, I really could have. You know, I could have easily, you know, just not come back. I could, you know, honesty, I, you know, of course that stuff causes your mind.

GUPTA: Well, I was talking to my wife about it and I said you didn't talked to anybody for a longtime.

O'BRIEN: Yeah.

GUPTA: And she said, maybe -- we thought that maybe you're thinking about and didn't want anyone, you know, or talk you out of it.

O'BRIEN: Well I needed to sort through those -- the full range of options. And I mean the full range on my own. But it were, you know, I got through it, that's all I can say.

GUPTA: Yeah.

O'BRIEN: You know.

GUPTA: Look at you now.

O'BRIEN: And I'm back. I feel like I'm going to be...

GUPTA: You're back.

O'BRIEN: ... 13 and half miles. Few more to go. But I'll do 300 miles than that. This morning, and its beautiful July day, I feel very much alive and I feel very grateful to be alive. This is a -- it's a privilege to be able to do this.

GUPTA: At one point during the ride, the GoPro we had pass to Miles' bicycle falls out of place.

We got to adjust the GoPro real quick.

O'BRIEN: Yeah, yeah I can't -- can you do it side by side?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

GUPTA: Instead of stopping to adjust, Miles pedals up next to the car where our camera is filming so he could reach over and help him fix it.

O'BRIEN: Good? Happy? All right, cool. Man, in flight fueling. That was awesome.

GUPTA: It's a typical miles moments, to see the problem, adjust, fix it, but don't stop moving. There's a lesson for here for everyone. With all of Miles' big goals like finishing this ride, I realized it was really a little victor race, like get through each day. In the end, Miles finished the entire 300 miles.

O'BRIEN: I've proven if you think to myself. I've learned how to ride a bike. I've run and I broken my nose, because I fell flat on my face and I got back up and I run again. And so, I think as the crash come, as the emotions build up, it kind of gives you a little bit of armor to deal with it, because I know in my heart of heart, I can get through it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GUPTA: The interesting about this talking to you, Miles, like I - again, I told it was bit of a punch in the gut, because I was little nervous to the interview, just because -- I don't know, it's tough, right. I know it's not tough for me as it is but you but it's just -- it is still in some ways, hard to see your friend go through this. But I think that the times that I've kind of got a little -- the Goosebumps is when you talk about the good parts.

O'BRIEN: Yeah.

GUPTA: You know, the outreach and the love and all that.

O'BRIEN: Well if somebody ask me about that, they said, you know, if you had to trade what you've learned in this whole idea that, you know, we're not alone, we all support each other, it's not - it's OK to be helped. It's actually really great, it's empowering to be helped.

You have to trade all that knowledge that I have learned is really -- through this very hard lesson for having my arm back, what would you do? And I think I'd always go for love. I know that sounds strange but love triumphs. GUPTA: Miles' rehab doctors said that it usually take two years to recover from a traumatic event. One year to make it true birthdays, holidays, and the anniversary of the event. And then by the next year as you go through these dates again, you realize life goes on. Miles has just finished the first year of his recovery and it's clear that for Miles, life definitely does go on.

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks for watching.