Today I am very honored to be introducing Freeman Miller, M.D. who is a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Du Pont Children’s Hospital in Wilmington, Delaware. His curriculum vitae is impressive. After he received his Bachelors at the University of Colorado, he entered medical school (also at the University of Colorado). He did his post-doctoral training at the University of Colorado, the University of Virginia, and the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. He has held faculty positions at Thomas Jefferson University and the University of Delaware. He worked as a physician at Goshen and Elkhart General Hospitals before taking his current position at Du Pont Children’s Hospital. He received a lifetime achievement award for contributions to caring for children with disabilities from the Royal College of Surgeons of Scotland.
All this came out of Freeman Miller’s humble beginnings of being born and raised in an Amish family and community. He is a shining example of what is possible, even for those of us who leave the Amish with only an eighth grade education. In fact, he makes a good point, that our Amish upbringing affords us certain advantages (see interview below).
Not all of us are going to make such a difference in our world as Dr. Miller has made. However, we can certainly make whatever contributions our talents allow. For some, acquiring more formal education is important in following their dreams and realizing their potential. Now Dr. Miller is helping to make that possible by giving generously to the Amish Descendant Scholarship Fund. Not only is he accomplished in making a difference in the lives of the children he treats, but he is now reaching out to those who have left the Amish and are in the beginning of their educational journey. With grateful hearts, we thank him wholeheartedly for his kindness and generosity. I would also like to give a hearty thank you to Dr. Miller for taking the time on his flights back from India recently to answer several interview questions. Here is the interview:
1. I understand you grew up Amish. In which community were you born?
Yes I grew up in the Wayne-Holmes County, Ohio community, with my father’s family mainly being in Holmes County and my mother’s in Wayne County.
2. How many siblings did you have, and where are you in the birth order?
I am the oldest in my family of seven with three brothers and three sisters. My youngest sister is 18 years younger then I am and my youngest brother is 15 years younger then I am. I have a good relationship with all my siblings.
3. How would you characterize your childhood?
My memory of my childhood is very positive with a lot of family activities. My mother had only two sisters and one did not get married but took care of the grandparents till they passed. I had happy times with my aunt and grandmother and step-grandfather. My parents had to work hard on the farm and my father worked at the carpenter trade when the farm work was slow. Since I was the oldest, I was expected to help a lot around the farm. Although I never enjoyed the farm work much, I did have a sense my parents appreciated my help. I could also appreciate how hard they worked to get ahead. After I finished eighth grade, I gradually was able to explore other work and after a year I got a job in a cheese factory, which I enjoyed and my parents supported me in having this job. I completed eighth grade in a public school and very much enjoyed school. I would have liked to attend high school, however I knew that was not possible. My parents allowed me and paid for me to enroll in a correspondence high school program, which I did. It was very basic and I am not sure it added much to my education but I also enjoyed reading almost all materials, especially things related to science and math. In our home we always got the daily newspaper.
4. Why did you leave your Amish community?
When I was 18 years old I was drafted by the military but I had obtained the 1-W status as a conscientious objector. After receiving my draft notice, this was during the Vietnam War before the lottery; I choose to go to Denver, Colorado because I had the idea that I wanted to travel. Although my family would have liked me to stay closer to home they were supportive of my choice. So I went to Denver and worked in the emergency room at the University of Colorado Hospital. There I found that I really enjoyed medicine.
5. Did any of your other family members leave also?
All my other brothers and sisters are still with the Amish church, my middle brother is a Bishop. All are respected members of the community.
6. How old were you when you first entered college?
After I worked at the hospital for a year and I found medicine interesting, I decided to try to take some classes at the University of Colorado. Since I worked for the University, I could get a reduced rate, so I took the SAT and had a better then average score on Math, Science and General Knowledge, however my English score was very bad. I applied to the University and received a letter saying I could come and sign up for classes. So I went to sign up, however the person in admissions told me since I had not really gone to high school, a fact they missed on my letter of acceptance, and based on my SAT it was questionable if I could read well and write well enough to be in the University, he did not want to let me enroll. This was the time though when there were riots on the campus, students were burning tires outside the admissions office and all the administrators was very anxious. Students were trying to close down the university, so here I was loudly protesting, holding my letter that I had been accepted, and I want to sign up for classes. More negotiation ensued and finally we agreed that I could take two classes, one had to be an English class and I had to get at least a B in each class. I took a science class, which I found relatively easy, but the English literature class with the writing required was hard. At about this time I had started to date a secretary who also worked in the emergency room and she volunteered to help me with English. While I was working in the cheese factory for four years, I was mostly speaking a combination of Pennsylvania Dutch, Swiss and English with Germanic grammar, this on top of the fact that English was not my strong class in grade school.
7. Will you describe your path to higher education, including mentors or people who encouraged you along the way?
After I took the classes at CU and got my A and B, I decided I wanted to stay in medicine but the idea of college, medical school and residency seemed too much, so I decided to enroll in Physician’s Assistant program which was a new program started at a community college in cooperation with the University of Iowa. This was a program design to provide an opportunity for vets returning from the military, and although I was not in the military I fit the same experience they were looking for. I entered this program, which I found relatively easy but I also became more convinced that this would not satisfy me and I decided to return to Colorado and complete my BA degree and apply to medical school. In the meantime I married Lois Lind who was the secretary who helped me with my English. After completing college and applying to medical school, I took the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) and again I had this issue with English however this was also the time when there was a focus on admitting minorities, and although I could not qualify as minority, I did make a point to tell the admissions committee that English is my second language and convinced them that I could manage with English. They were willing to accept this and I got admitted to medical school. The issue of high school did not arise after the initial registration since I was then a transfer student and they look at the transfer record only.
8. What challenges did you need to overcome to acquire your education?
My main struggle has been with English as I noted above and clearly my wife has been the main tutor in this area, helping me use correct grammar. This is no longer an issue but I still get asked where I’m from as I don’t sound like a standard American. On the other hand I am frequently told by non-native English speakers that they can understand me better then most Americans.
9. Will you describe a pinnacle moment (or moments) in your education?
This is a hard question. I was definitely happy to graduate from medical school but it is such an evolutionary process that it did not seem like a pinnacle. As my career advanced I have developed a good international reputation and two years ago I received a lifetime achievement award for contributions to caring for children with disabilities from the Royal College of Surgeons of Scotland. I was very honored to get this award and being made a member of the Royal College, which includes all the British commonwealth countries.
10. Will you describe the path to your profession as an orthopedic surgeon? Did you always know you wanted to be a doctor, or did you decide that after you were in college? Who encouraged or inspired you along the way?
The training is a very long 16-year process from the beginning of college. The whole process takes a lot of “stick to it” which I feel I learned from my upbringing. From the time I worked in the emergency room as an orderly, I enjoyed orthopedics and in college I found I enjoyed engineering, which also fits with orthopedics. I have been an adjunct professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Delaware for 25 years. During orthopedic residency training I was drawn to pediatrics. During my final year in pediatric sub-specialty training I found an interest in working with children with neurologic disorders. After I finished my training, I worked as a general orthopedist in Goshen, Indiana, which I enjoyed. I decided to do this because my wife was enrolled at Mennonite Seminary in Elkhart. However, my real love was children and 25 years ago we moved to Wilmington, Delaware where I could work exclusively with children. For the past 20 years I have worked primarily with children with Cerebral Palsy. I have not had any single mentor, however as my training advanced there was a small group of older doctors who were also primarily interested in the highly sub-specialized area of Cerebral Palsy management, who were very encouraging. Because these physicians were from my parents’ generation, they have now all died. Due to this, I currently make a special effort to reach out to young people in my highly sub-specialized area.
11. What triumphs have you experienced in the life path you chose? What sacrifices did you have to make to take this path?
The best experience in my career is having a long relationship with my patients, although I work in a highly sub-specialized area, I have many families whose children I saw first early childhood who have become young adults. It has been wonderful to have these long relationships and see the children grow and develop. The main sacrifice is the heavy time commitment requiring long work hours. Also because I chose to work in research as well as clinical care, I have had a very heavy travel schedule. I enjoy the travel but it is also tiring, especially as I get older it is harder to fly all night and then return to work in the morning.
12. What advice can you give to someone who has left the Amish with only an eighth grade education and would like to go to college?
My first advice is try to figure out what your goal is, if you are not sure, try to get a job in some context in the area you are interested in. I think it is very important to define attainable goals and then work toward that. When I started initially working in the emergency room as an orderly I had a very poor concept of how medicine was organized and how one got through the system, so for me this work experience allowed me to develop goals that I could attain. If an Amish young person has completed eighth grade in an Amish school, I think it would be wise to start in a community college. You need to learn how to interact with the modern Internet and develop good English skills. I think the English is less of a problem if the person has a good language aptitude. The educational system though is very different from 50 years ago, when I did not find skipping high school was a major problem. A lot of what high school students now learn, I got in the first two years of college. Also it is important to remember that coming from an Amish school, which most likely gave you a less then ideal educational foundation, does not mean that you are the only one with this struggle. There are many thousands of intercity poor schools who have no better educational foundation. I feel the big difference you have growing up in an Amish family and community is you have already learned the importance of hard work, healthy interpersonal skills and good moral judgment. You have this large head start to use the programs, mainly in community colleges, which are directed at helping these young people with poor educational foundations.