A "No Outlet" sign is, quite literally, a big, yellow warning sign. But George and Suzanne Abell never saw it. Eric Millican made sure to hide the sign from his grandparents, sliding it underneath the spare tire in the trunk of his new Saturn Ion. The sign was both a trophy to go on his bedroom wall and proof of a simmering rebellious streak in an honor student who hardly ever broke the rules. "I didn't know he had it in him," said George Abell, chuckling at his grandson's shenanigans.
There are a lot of things the Abells, other family members and friends will never know about Eric. Beneath the smirk and normal schoolboy angst was a teen who lived in a great deal of pain. A 16-year-old student at Nature Coast Technical High School, Eric Millican had already had four open-heart surgeries, with a fifth likely on the way, and a stroke. He also suffered through debilitating migraine headaches and pancreatitis.
One day, for whatever reason, Eric had had enough.
He hanged himself Nov. 13 in the garage of his home in the 2400 block of Dustin Circle, according to the Hernando County Sheriff's Office. He left a note. His grandparents found him a little after 5 p.m. Deputies are calling the death an apparent suicide. The case is open pending a report from the medical examiner.
The night after Eric's death, dozens of his friends made their way over to the Abells' home to pay their respects and sort through their grief. At some point in the evening, one of the boys took the keys to Eric's car, went outside and came back with the "No Outlet" sign.
Everyone had a laugh; the Abells were totally surprised. They knew nothing about the sign. Later, Suzanne Abell figured out that it wasn't just a joke.
There may have been a message there.
"There is always an outlet," Suzanne Abell said. "Kids should find someone to talk to. Parents, a friend, a teacher, someone. There's no such thing as 'no outlet.' "
'Room to grow'
After two open-heart surgeries, 23 days in the hospital and thousands of prayers, the Abells were finally able to take home their fragile little miracle in February 1992. But the doctor sent them out of the hospital with a warning.
"I just want you to be prepared," the doctor told them, "this baby is going to die in your arms."
Eric was born with a rare and complex congenital heart defect known as tetralogy of Fallot. The condition is composed of four specific defects that prevent enough blood from reaching the lungs to get oxygen, creating oxygen-poor blood that flows through the body. The condition occurs in about five of every 10,000 babies, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.
Under the best of circumstances, a child that survives the reparative surgeries and makes it to adulthood will need lifelong medical care from an adult congenital cardiologist. The doctor was preparing the Abells for the worst; crying, for instance, could prove too stressful and ultimately fatal for the baby.
"So I said, 'Well, the baby just won't cry then,' " George Abell said. "And he never did."
At birth, it was decided that Eric would be raised by his grandparents because of the health concerns. That meant some drastic changes for the Abells, who had recently retired and bought a condo near the coast in St. Petersburg.
"It was not a place for a child," Suzanne Abell said. "(Eric) needed space. He needed room to grow."
In 1998, the Abells settled on a four-bedroom, ranch-style home in a fledging Spring Hill neighborhood that bordered a small, man-made lake. There was a sprawling oak tree in the front that begged for a tree house and enough room in the back for a lanai and pool.
In short, it was almost perfect for a small child: Eric had the space he needed to grow. And the Abells religiously doted on him to make sure he didn't push the limits and endanger his health.
Despite the physical challenges, Eric grew into a normal child who liked apple pie, Garth Brooks, video games, bowling and the Florida Gators. Especially bowling.
Suzanne Abell got Eric started with the game when he was 5, hoping he would enjoy one of the few sports that he had doctors' permission to play. His first bowling coach, Susan Winnegar, said the game quickly became important to Eric.
"His (grandmother) was very concerned because he'd already had three heart surgeries," Winnegar said. "But thank God he found bowling. He loved bowling. He went into it 100 percent."
On bowling teams
Eric had a fourth heart surgery when he was 10. By that time, he and the Abells had grown used to the constant hospital trips, the chest pains and the seemingly ceaseless migraines.
Over the years, Eric had become skillful at hiding his physical struggles from friends and classmates. His chest bore the wounds of previous surgeries. But with a shirt covering the scars, Eric looked like any other boy.
"He looked like an extremely healthy kid," said Maureen Wickert, one of Eric's former principals at the Notre Dame Catholic School in Spring Hill and a friend of the family. "Eric had a weak heart physically but a strong heart emotionally."
Unable to play contact sports such as football or basketball, Eric turned his attention to the lanes. He spent so much time at the bowling alley that he eventually got a four-day-a-week job at Spring Hill Lanes. Over time, Eric became quite the bowler.
He averaged in the 190s in a series of winter leagues last season, including a 198 in the Spring Hill Youth/Adult League at Spring Hill Lanes. Eric improved his average into the 200s this summer, including several games where he rolled 11 strikes in a row.
At Nature Tech, Eric was one of the members of a state championship bowling team last year. The Sharks became only the sixth Hernando County high school team to win a state title.
The honor — and the championship ring and gold medal that came with it — meant a lot to Eric.
"It's the one thing that makes me feel like I can do something," he told Hernando Today for a profile in September. "It's the one thing I can do that's a challenge."
Masking his pain
By anyone's standard, Eric was having a rough 2008.
Those painful migraines never seemed to go away, sending Eric to the hospital in January after he suffered a migraine-related stroke. Medication did little to dull the agony. He later learned that he would probably need a fifth open-heart surgery sometime in the next couple of years.
"We could not cure those migraines; we could only dull them," Suzanne Abell said. "He once had a migraine that lasted 12 straight weeks. Can you imagine that? But he never shared his pain with anyone."
Though Eric was really hurting, it would have been hard for anyone to tell.
He earned his driver's license, bought a spiffy blue Saturn Ion and had a girlfriend. Eric was also doing well in school with a 3.7 grade-point average, bowling better than ever and even participating in the local Explorer program, which offers those ages 14 to 21 the chance to learn what firefighting and emergency medical response are all about.
Eric was looking forward to another season of bowling at Nature Coast. He hoped to earn some college money and maybe attend the University of Florida. He told his grandparents he wanted to become a doctor; maybe someday he would become one of the nice doctors who treated kids like him.
Then Eric suffered a huge disappointment: Nature Coast announced in September that it couldn't field a bowling team this year because there was no money to pay for a coach. The Sharks wouldn't be able to defend their state championship.
"He was extremely proud of winning that title," George Abell said. "He was very upset that he didn't get to defend it. Bowling was his life."
Now it was gone. But Eric had become really good at masking his pain, in many ways still the child who was taught not to cry.
For a while, Eric settled back into something of a routine. He went to school, attended church on Sundays, took his girlfriend to the homecoming dance and spent a lot of time working at Spring Hill Lanes. All the while, the headaches never abated.
Then, sometime on the afternoon of Nov. 13, Eric put an end to the pain.
"He lived with it for a long time," said Suzanne Abell, her eyes filling with tears. "I just think it was too much."
Giving others strength
Nearly 2,000 people came to Eric's funeral on Nov. 17 at Pinecrest Funeral Chapel in Spring Hill.
"Everyone is grieving," Winnegar said. "Eric touched a lot of lives. But maybe he's saved some lives, too. Maybe that's the good in this."
On a recent Tuesday at the Abells' home, Eric's grandparents and former principal Wickert remembered better times. They talked about "Scooter," the nickname Eric got from his grandfather for the way he learned to get around as a baby — he would "scoot" across the floor on his diapered bottom.
"He liked the nickname so much, he told me to keep calling him that even when he was a teenager," George Abell said. "He was my little Scooter."
Eric rarely bowed to his ailments, they said. His grandparents would set the limits, and Eric would find ways to reach them. But he never crossed them.
"He was my life," Suzanne Abell said. "Eric gave me my strength."
She was reminded of the "No Outlet" sign that Eric had been hiding in his car trunk. The sign now has a prominent place in the home, leaning up against a pool table in the computer room. Nearly the entire surface is covered in signatures from Eric's friends and classmates.
Suzanne and George Abell hope the kids got the message.
Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6120.