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Art Attack

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A local COVID patient beats the odds, comes out of his coma, and suddenly becomes a prolific painter.

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In March 2020, Mr. Abraham (Abe) Miller, a Rockland County resident, was among the first COVID-19 patients admitted to Westchester Medical Center. For weeks, his condition was critical: He was on a ventilator, on ECMO (a type of lung bypass machine), and in a medically induced coma.

When he woke up, the 69-year-old entrepreneur, who had never studied art, announced that he wanted to become a painter. He has since painted more than 500 works of art and has written a book, “From COVID to Canvas,” all of which can be seen on his website.

Last October, Mr. Miller donated three pieces of his artwork to Westchester Medical Center in appreciation for their care. We spoke with Mr. Miller and Dr. Elliot (Avi) Levine, the physician who oversaw his ICU care.

Examiner+: What was your life like before you went into the hospital?

Mr. Abraham “Abe” Miller: I am a very, very active entrepreneur. Since I was 6 years old, I have been a wheeler-dealer. In my history, I opened retail stores many times, and then I went into the real estate business. I opened a silver store, selling precious silver pieces. I do many different things.

I am also a composer and have written over 600 songs. I come from a musical family. I compose songs and sell CDs with my songs.

E+: Tell me about when you went to the hospital.

Miller: All day on Sunday, March 22, 2020, I didn’t feel good. A friend of mine works for a private ambulance organization. He came to my home and checked my oxygen level. When he saw it was down to 75, he said, “You’re going to the hospital this minute.” I told him to take me to the nearest hospital, which is about 10 minutes from where I live, but he decided to go 45 minutes to Westchester Medical Center. And that was a God-sent miracle.

Examiner+ to Dr. Levine: Can you give me a snapshot of Mr. Miller’s condition when he arrived at the hospital?

Dr. Levine: Mr. Miller came to us at Westchester Medical Center in the very first week when the COVID crisis started. He was the sickest of the sick. He was placed onto a breathing machine, a ventilator, within just a few minutes of being in the hospital.

When COVID started, every ICU attending, myself and the rest of the whole cardiology division, were all pulled in to help take care of COVID patients. He happened to end up in the Cardiac ICU, so that’s how I got involved in his care.

Within a few hours, we knew that Mr. Miller needed more support than could be offered by just a breathing machine. We connected him to an ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machine, which essentially worked as an external lung to take the blood out of his body and pump it back in.

For a number of weeks, he essentially made no progress. He was sedated in a medically induced coma, and we were paralyzing his body so that we could control every aspect of his oxygen.

Then after around three or four weeks of being on ECMO, his body just started to make a miraculous recovery. It was incredible how rapidly he started getting better, where eventually we were able to start waking him up.

We did a tracheostomy, so he was on a ventilator but through his neck. We were able to get him off of the ECMO. He made leaps and bounds of dramatic progress. He was incredibly resilient. No other organ system was ever impacted — his body withstood every other insult that was happening. To be 69, be on ECMO, survive, and have no other organ system damage, I think it’s unheard of. He might be the only case in the country.

It’s hard to give numerical [odds on his recovery], but it was extremely, extremely grim. Most patients in his situation, unfortunately, did not survive.

He ended up eventually going to a rehab facility just to learn how to walk again, and now he is maybe the best version of himself that he’s ever been.

E+: When you first started to come to, did you understand what had happened to you?

Miller: No, I missed seven or eight weeks that I didn’t know anything about. My kids didn’t tell me what I went through until I was in rehab; that’s what I found out. I found out how many friends I lost in my neighborhood — at least 100 people passed away, same age and much younger.

My body took four weeks to learn how to stand for 30 seconds. I lost 51 pounds and I was so weak that I couldn’t move, but I didn’t give up. I was away for 100 days, including rehabilitation.

E+: Had you wanted to be an artist in the past?

Miller: I was recuperating in the rehab center and my kids brought me songs that I made. I was feeling very weak, but when I heard one of my songs, I pictured myself and said, “If I would be a painter, I would paint it according to this song.”

I hadn’t eaten or drank for three months. The first thing I said to my children after they took out the trach and I was able to speak, was that I wanted to become an artist. They started laughing because they knew that I don’t do art. I said, “Just like I compose a song, why can’t I compose a painting?”

When I came home, I asked my kids, “Who is going to buy my art supplies?” And they said, “Do you really mean it?’ And they saw I meant business.

Thank God I came back a hundred percent and with more energy than I ever had because I painted over 500 paintings in the past 18 months. You can see them on my website at www.abemillerart.com

E+: And you had not taken art lessons before?

Miller: No art lessons. I was never involved in art. Never went to a museum. Never dreamt anything about art. The Hassidic people, we don’t watch television, we don’t watch movies. It came out from my brain as if I studied art for 10 or 20 years. That’s the amazing part.

I had someone come in to buy silver and I had put some of [my art] pieces in the store. So, the guy says, “You have a Jackson Pollock painting.” I said, “Who is Jackson Pollock?” He said, “You mean to tell me that you are selling Jackson Pollock and you don’t even know?” I said, “I’ve never heard of him.” I explained that I painted it. He told me that I had painted in the same style as Jackson Pollock and showed me some of his paintings on the computer — the same like I made, sell for $140 million.

Yesterday I sold four paintings to an art collector who does this for 20 years and he says, “You don’t even know what kind of paintings you have. You’re painting like the biggest in the industry.”

E+: What do you use to make your artwork?

Miller: I use oil and acrylic. I can take a knife in the middle of the painting and start working with it and my wife brings me lunch and I see a fork and I can involve the fork and twist it in different ways — whatever comes to my mind. After I make a painting, I can take an old sock and dip it into three colors of paint and roll it back and forth. When I finish it, I don’t know even know two weeks later how that painting was made.

Sometimes I get up in the morning and I look at it again and I say, “There’s still something missing,” and I paint on top of it. Now it shows me little things from yesterday that shine out and it becomes like a 3D, and it looks like a completely different painting. And my wife says, “Now, it’s a painting.”

E+: You said that at first, your inspiration was a song. Where does your inspiration come from today?

Miller: When someone asks me to write a song, it’s usually a Jewish religious song. I say, “Tell me, with which words you would like the song?” Then I have to make up my mind if it’s going to be lively — a song they can dance to — or if it’s going to be heart and soul, quiet and beautiful, like classical music.

And by the way, when I paint, I sing. Whoever buys a painting can get a recording of the song that I sang when I painted it.

E+ to Dr. Levine: How has Mr. Miller’s care team, you as well as the others, responded to his recovery and journey to become a painter?

Dr. Levine: Not only was Mr. Miller’s outlook grim, but we were in a time when we were overwhelmed as a medical system.

When he was here, his family arranged for an iPod with his composed songs and singing and a little small speaker system to be brought to the hospital. For hours every day, in his ICU room with him being completely sedated, his music was playing. When we started playing the music, he started moving parts of his head a little bit, so we had a sense that he was still tuned in on the inside. It was a very dreary time, so to just hear his music in his room, and then for him to wake up…

When he came back to dedicate these paintings, some of the ICU nurses went downstairs to see him. To see him on the opposite side of all of this gives strength to keep caring for people who don’t seem to have a very promising outlook.

It’s very easy for myself and my co-ICU attendings to sort of take credit for it. Really it was the bedside nurses who changed him and cleaned him and moved him. It was definitely a group effort.

It’s incredible to see someone not just survive, but now that he has sort of channeled this newfound energy and expression and is putting it on the canvas, it’s a beautiful thing.

E+ to Dr. Levine: How has his journey and this story affected you as a physician?

Dr. Levine: I think it reinforces the fact that as bleak as it may be, you just can’t give up on somebody. You have to give everybody every possible chance and support them. People really can come back from the brink.

E+: What do you hope that your legacy with your artwork will be?

Miller: My legacy will be that it’s unbelievable how a person at age 70 can start something new and never give up hope, because God loves the world and if he wants you to live, you will live — but, you have to be a fighter.

(All photos and video courtesy Westchester Medical Center)

Sherrie Dulworth is a lower Hudson Valley freelance writer whose stories range across healthcare, careers, literature, and human interest. She often finds tranquility with her nose in a book or her feet on a hiking trail, but not simultaneously.

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