FORGING TWO CAREERS
When Michael Miller '76M (MD) takes a break from the pressures of putting broken bones back together as an orthopedic surgeon, he heads to his barn, where he has forged a separate career as a professional horseshoer.
A specialist in trauma orthopedics in Huntsville, Alabama, Miller also is a certified journeyman farrier who considers himself lucky to have found two compelling callings.
"Orthopedics is really an art and a craft," he says. "There's definitely a great deal of science in it, but there's more to orthopedics than just science.
"It's the same with horseshoeing. There is science involved, but there's no escaping the art and craft of it."
First introduced to the craft of making horseshoes almost a decade before he set foot in the School of Medicine and Dentistry, Miller is carrying on two traditions that have deep roots in his family.
His grandfather Abram emigrated from Poland in 1904, arriving in Rochester because he'd been told there was plenty of work for iron craftsmen. His handiwork still survives in some of the signs along Browncroft Boulevard. He also made the railings on the Bishop of Rochester's residence.
Miller's father, Leon Miller '45M (MD), made his career on the faculty of the University Medical Center. Having gone to work for founding dean and Nobelist George Whipple, the elder Miller is now professor emeritus of biochemistry and biophysics.
(In another alumni connection, Miller is the nephew of music great Mitch Miller '32E.)
A native of Rochester's 19th Ward, Michael Miller attended Cornell University and, after graduation, completed two years of alternate civilian service as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.
He spent the second year in California, where he became interested in horseshoeing and finished a three-month farrier course at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo.
He worked as a horseshoer for a few years before growing frustrated at a lack of professional connection with other farriers. At the time, there were no national organizations or publications geared to the field.
"Once you were finished with the training, you were kind of on your own," Miller says. "It's different now."
He figured medical school would provide an appropriate new challenge and returned to Rochester, continuing to shoe horses in his spare time.
"I paid my way through medical school that way," he says.
In the back of his 1950 Dodge truck, the medical student kept a cold forge and the equipment he needed to make his rounds to the 125 horses he kept shod.
"I basically had a full-sized blacksmith shop back there," he says.
After receiving his medical degree, Miller headed to Birmingham, Alabama, to complete a residency in internal medicine, but found that the field wasn't physical enough to suit him. He stayed to complete a second residency in orthopedics.
During the early part of his career as a staff member at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and in private practice, he had to put his farrier work aside because of the demands of his schedule.
He picked up his hammer again about three years ago and found a much broader support network than had existed before, including a national organization that has certified him as a journeyman farrier.
"My work is probably 100 percent better than it ever was," he says.
He found he'd missed what horseshoeing had added to his life. It's a consuming craft that repays people who are willing to put in the time and energy to learn it, Miller says.
"Shoeing horses is kind of like scuba-diving: When you are doing it right, you are completely caught up in it. It's very relaxing."
He has set up his schedule to allow plenty of time for his work with both humans and horses.
Miller is on call for two 24-hour shifts a week at the emergency room of Huntsville Hospital, the busiest ER in the state. Between shifts, he sees patients and shoes horses.
Horseshoeing is hard work, especially hard on the back, arms, and legs, and it can be dangerous, Miller admits.
"There's a lot of ways you can hurt yourself," he says. "You can get kicked, stepped on, bitten."
But he notes that the work also brings him into contact with a circle of people outside medicine, and it gives him a better idea of what the work lives of many of his patients are like.
"It gives me a little bit different point of view," he says.
He hopes to retire from his orthopedic work in six or seven years to return to shoeing horses full time.
"As a friend says, 'For some people, once they hit their first piece of hot iron, they're hooked for life.' That's the way it was for me," he says. "I'm lucky. I found two things that I really love doing."
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