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Thursday October 17, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Thursday October 17, 2013 MYT 8:00:02 AM
by sam mcmanis
Survivor: Joyce Mikal-Flynn’s self-published book, Turning Tragedy Into Triumph, details her story and those of six others who, due to accident or illness, saw their worlds come crashing down, but refused to succumb. — MCT
Nurse practitioner champions a new model of mind-based rehabilitation.
SHE sometimes refers to her death, euphemistically, as “The Event”.
She speaks of it matter-of-factly, almost clinically, devoid of freighted emotion one might expect from a woman whose heart stopped for 22 minutes one afternoon 23 years ago on the deck of a Sacramento, California, swimming pool, and whose resuscitation and arduous rehabilitation changed her life in so many ways.
Then again, Joyce Mikal-Flynn hardly qualifies as typical.
Even before the 1990 heart attack that has defined her life and given her renewed purpose, she had been a classic outlier. Driven and intense, Mikal-Flynn was a nurse practitioner with a thriving practice, a triathlete, a doting young mother of three, and spouse to a high-profile corporate husband.
She neither had the time nor inclination to wallow in maudlin emotions.
Post-“Event”, she eventually used her inner-Ironwoman will to defy the odds – and most doctors’ expectations – to rebuild her life, synapse by firing synapse, step by halting step, thought by positive thought.
She arrived, ultimately, at a higher existential plane where her “new-normal” life is richer and fuller than before.
Not only is she back practising her profession – as well as teaching nursing as a tenured professor at California State University, Sacramento – and running marathons and sending her three children off into adulthood, Mikal-Flynn has developed a new approach to rehabilitation.
Based on her experience and those of other survivors of life-altering accidents or illnesses, her concept of “metahabilitation” promises nothing less than turning “devastation and disempowerment into self-actualisation”.
Her self-published book, Turning Tragedy into Triumph, details her story and those of six others who, due to accident or illness, saw their worlds come crashing down – careers and marriages ended, senses of identity obliterated, once-ordinary daily routines turned monumentally difficult – but refused to succumb.
Using her medical background to buttress her personal experience, Mikal-Flynn has sought in the book to teach doctors and occupational therapists that rehabilitation alone is not enough, that a psychic transformation can go hand-in-hand with levels of physical recovery.
“The thing that drives me crazy is physicians and other healthcare people taking away that sense of hope. Who knows what you’re going to do, post-accident?
“I don’t know. You have to instill hope. There’s a hope of your life being a wonderful life. Sometimes, these people that I wrote about hung onto the thinnest thread of that hope. And look where it got them – to huge growth experiences,” said Mikal-Flynn.
Of course, Mikal-Flynn, 58, concedes that her story is atypical. One of her cardiologists, Dr Roger Van Winkle, once told her, “You are the luckiest person I have ever met. I have never met anyone who had that much CPR and is alive and sitting up speaking to me.”
But rather than considering herself an exception among near-death cohorts, Mikal-Flynn sees her ordeal as an example of how she forced herself to “shake off my ego and resentment, and move forward”.
When asked how, as she writes, people can find meaning in their suffering, Mikal-Flynn leans in and puffs her lips to blow her brown bangs back into place.
“I do not minimise people’s pain. These things are not fun and I’d never challenge somebody on it and (say), ‘You just need to get over it.’ No, no, no. But you need to grow as a result (of the event). Here’s the deal: I’m so tired of motivation.
“People tell me, ‘Joyce, your story’s motivational,’ but motivational stories are a dime a dozen. What I want to do is to say, ‘(My) story is just to allow you to see possibilities. Because just hearing a motivational story is not enough. If it was, everybody would be (cured). I never sit around telling somebody, ‘This is the best thing that could happen to you.’”
But, in a way, it was for Mikal-Flynn. Two years after “The Event”, through rigorous occupational therapy and counseling, she regained all her cognitive functions and proved wrong the cardiologist who told her she’d never run again.
Saddled with aphasia, she basically had to relearn the language and, as her husband, Terry, noted, “figure out how to run the microwave oven again.”
She battled depression, too, once flirting with suicidal thoughts. She would, early on, take walks around the block and forget where home was.
Her kids were on their own when having to construct their fourth-grade projects; mum was just trying to remember their middle names.
So Mikal-Flynn, when she later returned to earn her doctorate at St Mary’s College in Moraga, California, remembered her initial struggle and the “turning point”, a moment of clarity when she decided to fight to embrace her new life rather than morosely accept its perceived limitations.
Much like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of death, Mikal-Flynn developed a six-stage model of rehabilitation: acute recovery; the turning point; the treatments; acceptance and adaptation, regeneration; and taking on the future. She even copyrighted the term “metahabilitation”.
Meta, she said, because it goes above and beyond a simple return to normalcy that rehabilitation promises.
Then, she set out to interview others like her who had taken the same path after catastrophe. Among the six survivors profiled in the book are “Jerry”, a dentist who was paralysed due to an air embolism while diving and lost his practice; “Dominic”, a college rugby player paralysed in a car accident; and Connie, a mountain climber who suffered major head trauma in a 30-foot fall.
After varying periods of grieving the loss of much of their physical capabilities, the subjects whom Mikal-Flynn interviewed set about re-evaluating their lives in terms of not what they no longer could do, but what possible new opportunities arose as a result of their catastrophic accidents or illness.
“When I had my event, the thing that drove me nuts was everybody telling me what I could not do,” she said. “Nobody said, ‘OK, for (driven) people like you, here’s what we’ll do.’”
She acknowledges that her “metahabilitation” stance has drawn criticism from some doctors, who believe it gives some patients false hope, and from some patients who may think they are “failures” if they don’t succeed in reaching a certain plane of consciousness.
But Dr Dean Elias, Mikal-Flynn’s dissertation adviser at St Mary’s, defended the research and concept of “metahabilitation”. Her results may be anecdotal – but, my, what compelling anecdotes.
“All these people she talked to had a transformation of consciousness,” Dr Elias said. “They became different in a way that was more participatory in the whole of life. They gained a sense of their own agency. I think the medical establishment is doing what it gets paid to do, which is to keep things normal. She has discovered something that seems abnormal but in a very positive way.” – The Sacramento Bee/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Tags / Keywords:
Lifestyle, Health, Nurse, Near death, Rehabilitation, Heart Attack
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