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Steven Miles

Among Steven Miles's many accomplishments was authoring the original Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order.

Homegrown hero: Steven Miles

Steven Miles recognized for accomplishments near and far

By Jamie Proulx

Published on January 8, 2005; updated on January 12, 2005

To speak with University professor Steven Miles is to discover someone who has followed his interests fearlessly and ceaselessly.

Luckily for us, he's keenly dedicated to helping others live better lives, and you get the impression he thinks everyone else is, too. He is unassuming, driven, and has appropriately been named Minnesotan of the Year by Minnesota Monthly magazine.

Miles, a professor in the Center for Bioethics and the Medical School at the University of Minnesota, was surprised to receive the award, but those around him thought it was long overdue. Miles's medical career has taken him around the world and back again, and his concern for the health and dignity of others has motivated him his entire life.

Most recently, Miles became an international figure when he spoke up about the medical practices at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He is credited for pulling back the curtain and exposing the dirty partnership between those torturing Abu Ghraib prisoners and the medical personnel participating in the process.

"What surprised me was that the doctors did not turn in the abuse when they saw what happened," says Miles. "It was shocking to find that doctors had been co-opted into the process and had become active participants in the abuse."

When asked about his research and ensuing report on what he discovered at Abu Ghraib, Miles responds in a calm manner, but it is clear he is still upset about what happened, both as a health professional and as a fellow human being.

"We knew the abuses were going on because of the written reports. The public and the government mainly reacted to the photographs, but the photographs depicted what had been described in documents long before that," Miles says. "What surprised me was that the doctors did not turn in the abuse when they saw what happened. It was shocking to find that doctors had been co-opted into the process and had become active participants in the abuse."

He is happy about the reaction from the medical community, but still hopes for more action from inside the Beltway.

"The reaction in the Pentagon has been less positive. They said the fact that I got the data from their investigation shows that they're taking it seriously, but to this day the Pentagon has not launched a separate investigation [of medical professionals' involvement in the abuse]," Miles said. "It is important to look at the role of physicians in the interrogation process, which is an entirely different area, and it appears physicians are involved."

Miles's work surrounding the Abu Ghraib prison is only one piece of an outstanding career spanning nearly 30 years--one that has benefited people across the globe. Born in Deephaven, Minnesota, Miles chose medical school only after mulling over earlier options, which included the ministry. Following a quick rise to chief resident at Hennepin County Medical Center in the late '70s, he began exploring elderly care and the importance of one's dignity later in life. He authored the original Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order, which is still used today and encourages people to think about the time in their life--sooner rather than later--when a DNR might be called upon.

He has also spent much of his career in an aggressive pursuit of kinder and gentler treatment practices for the elderly--consistently questioning, for example, the design of bedrails and the use of restraints in nursing homes.

"That is still my major research project with the elderly," Miles says. "I think one of the really amazing things is that we've gone from about 40 percent of nursing home residents being restrained in 1980 to under 5 percent now--and the care has gotten better since we've done that. Elderly patients are less disabled because they are less retrained."

Miles's international work includes more than 25 years of work with the American Refugee Committee, including AIDS prevention in Sudan, and service as chief medical officer for 45,000 refugees on the Thai-Cambodian border. He will soon travel to southeast Asia to assist with the tsunami relief effort. Miles will be going to the Aceh Province in Sumatra to help set up a clinic for the American Refugee Committee.

And he even made a run for the U.S. Senate in 2000 against the eventual winner Mark Dayton. Even though Miles enjoyed the run immensely, he doesn't plan on doing it again.

While Miles has been successful and well recognized for his work, it is clear that the people he has helped have had more impact on him than the praise he receives. And as a member of the University community, he is acutely aware of the opportunities he has to help the next generation of leaders.

"I think that universities are designed to spread and create information. Whether it's educating retired teachers on important issues or questioning the Abu Ghraib investigation or creating better health care, these are all the kinds of things a university does," Miles says. "The U can look like a costly school, but it's more than a school. It helps transform the culture in a number of different ways, transforming students into major assets to our state and our world, while also being able to help call attention to abuses like Abu Ghraib."

Read more about Miles and his award in the January 2005 issue of Minnesota Monthly .