Life After Death
Local nurse writes on how to thrive after a traumatic injury
By Jeanne Winnick Brennan
Twenty-two years ago, Joyce Mikal-Flynn was already an accomplished woman at the age of 35. She was a nurse practitioner, a wife and mother to three young children, an avid runner and competitive triathlete. She also died at the bottom of a swimming pool and survived 22 minutes of CPR by several physicians who happened to be present.
Mikal-Flynn’s cardiac arrest and journey back from severe brain trauma were nothing less than medically amazing. She proved to herself and her doctors that she would and could do more than just heal; she would reach greater heights than before her accident. Today, she hopes to guide other survivors and their families through the healing process with her new, self-published book, “Turning Tragedy Into Triumph—MetaHabilitation: A Contemporary Model of Rehabilitation.”
“After my hand touched the wall in the pool to win the race, I have no memory of my cardiac arrest, resuscitation or being airlifted to Sutter Hospital,” says Mikal-Flynn, who lives in River Park. “I do remember waking up in the hospital, trying to figure out what had happened to me, not recognizing my husband and children, and trying to describe my favorite meal but having no vocabulary words for a cheeseburger, vanilla shake and French fries.”
Mikal-Flynn’s impaired language ability was only one of her many problems caused by severe brain trauma. She suffered cognitive delays, physical limitations, severe depression, intense anger and extreme fear. With no family history of respiratory or cardiac issues, there was no medical explanation or prediction for the future. The fact that she survived was equally perplexing. However, what she decided to do about her recovery lies at the very heart of her MetaHabilitation system. While still recuperating in the hospital almost a month after her trauma, she chose to defy the cardiologist who left her with no hope and a prognosis that she would never even run again.
“Devastated by his candor, I later saw him in the hallway and I told him he didn’t know me and what I could do,” says Mikal-Flynn. “I told him I had been through tough things in my life and he didn’t know who he was talking to. Then I turned and marched off toward my room only to find I was lost.”
That was Mikal-Flynn’s initial turning point and her first step onto a long road to recovery marked with setbacks and frustrations that also culminated in personal and professional triumphs. She resumed her medical practice, completed marathons and triathlons, earned a master’s degree in nursing from Sacramento State University, and later a doctor of education degree from St. Mary’s College of California.
"I never gave up hope,” says Mikal-Flynn. “I talk about that with patients. I never take their hope away. It is the fuel that allows us to survive.”
Throughout her recovery, she began to wonder what it is that enables one person to improve his or her condition, move beyond mere survival and thrive. Her thesis formed the beginnings of the 123-page book.
“The concept of enhanced recovery is not new in science, as bacteria and whole ecosystems mutate and survive in stronger forms. I saw transformations and enhanced healing in my own practice,” says Mikal-Flynn. “However, I realized there was no identified process, a way out allowing survivors to navigate through the fear and uncertainty of the event and life after.
MetaHabilitation is also important for the people supporting survivors. It gives hope and informs them how to organize thoughts and behaviors to achieve positive outcomes not in spite of the tragic event but as a direct result of it.”
In her book Mikal-Flynn illustrates six key stages through six profiles of inspiring individuals who faced very different traumas but shared similar characteristics. They managed their acute recoveries, came to a turning point and said yes to life, aggressively explored every possible therapy for their injuries, accepted and adapted to what they had to work with, returned to some manner of their previous lives at the highest level possible, and moved forward to full recovery with greater insight into their own strengths, a true appreciation for the love and support that allowed them to heal, and a deep desire to give back to life. The book also contains a manual and an action plan to guide individuals and families to progress through these stages.
Since the book was published in July, Mikal-Flynn has heard from numerous survivors and their families. She continues her medical practice as a nurse practitioner, teaches as an associate professor in the School of Nursing at Sacramento Sate University, and is often engaged as a medical presenter and motivational speaker. Just days before the opening of the Olympic Games in London this past summer, Mikal-Flynn spoke at the International Conference on Sport and Society at Cambridge University. And proving that initial cardiologist so very wrong 22 years ago, Joyce Mikal-Flynn runs. Boy, does she run.
“I am alive. The joy comes not from how fast I run but from the running, the doing,” Mikal-Flynn writes in her book. “I learned a new way of thinking about and understanding life and earned a deep appreciation for the power of the human spirit—of my spirit. These are the gifts I was given.”