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Trisha Meili: Going the Distance

Victoria Tilney McDonough, BrainLine

Going the Distance
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On the 20th anniversary of her attack, Trisha Meili — known in the media as the Central Park Jogger — continues sharing her personal best.

 

Trisha Meili remembers the first time she ran after her attack. Only two weeks out of a wheelchair and just 120 days after being raped, bludgeoned, and left unconscious in New York’s Central Park, she focused all her energy on moving forward, one step, then another and another.

The park
In the spring of 1989, New York City was a mess of violent statistics and raw nerves. This was pre-Guiliani when Times Square was more crack house than Disneyland. Perhaps as a backlash to this roiling social climate, thousands of people came out of the woodwork from across the country and the world to express their support for this young woman who was beaten so badly she was only identifiable by a ring she always wore — a circle of fine gold tied at the top in a gentle knot.

Trisha Meili was a 28-year-old overachiever working her way up the ladder as an investment banker at the financial firm Salomon Brothers. She had graduated with honors from Wellesley College and had two master’s degrees from Yale University. She says she was not a naturally gifted student, but in whatever she did, and for as long as she could remember, she pushed herself to be the best. She was also anorexic and an avid runner. After logging long hours at the firm, she never missed her nightly run through the park. It was her time to unwind, to let the day settle into perspective. And she found peace running in Central Park. In her New York Times bestselling memoir, I Am the Central Park Jogger: A Story of Hope and Possibility, she writes, "I remember running by myself, relishing the solitude and a feeling of ownership — it was my park. I belonged in the city spread out before me — it was my city. I had conquered challenges at work and made my body strong. I could run and run and nothing and no one could harm me."

She couldn't have known that the night of April 19, a group of more than 30 teenage boys would set off on a night of "wilding" — of random, gratuitous, hateful violence. And that a serial rapist was also roaming the park that night.

Past midnight, she was found tied up in the woods — her shirt knotted in her mouth and again around her hands in prayer position. She had a crack on the side of her head, deep lacerations on her scalp, and her eye had exploded from its socket. She was soaked in blood, unconscious, and her limbs were thrashing and jerking — the aftereffects of massive brain damage. The EMTs and the doctors at Metropolitan Hospital did not think she would live more than a few hours. The only part of her body that was not bruised were the soles of her feet.

Support and love
While Trisha lay in a coma, love and support for her mounted. Her parents and brothers — who found out about the attack the morning after from one of her co-workers who had identified her by her ring — kept vigil by her bed. Her colleagues visited often and extended generous financial support for her ongoing care. And from across the world, messages of shock and encouragement poured in for this nameless woman. Amidst the cascade of heartfelt letters and prayers, there was a banner from a running club in Alaska, a three-foot card from kids at Public School 27 in the Bronx, roses from Frank Sinatra, and running sneakers from marathoner Joan Benoit Samuelson. For months and years, the letters continued and with some of these kind strangers Trisha later formed lifelong bonds. One such stranger, now a friend, read a passage from The Prophet at her 1996 wedding.

When Trisha was still in acute care, having emerged from her 12-day coma, she gave her doctor a high-five. To everyone who knew her, she was back. One of her friends later told her that the weak but definite slap from Trisha’s hand had sent a powerful message to her doctors. A person's most salient characteristic often rises to the surface during recovery, her doctor explained; Trisha's was undoubtedly determination.

"I've always been a very determined person, but I cannot emphasize enough the power of all the support I got from people who knew and loved me and from all those strangers," she says. She also underscored the fact that her medical care was as good as it can get. It was immediate and uninterrupted for the whole continuum of her care, which, she says, was a key to her successful recovery.

Media frenzy
During those first weeks — when Trisha went from having last rites administered to starting to communicate with "yes" and "no" cards — the media was like a pack of wolves that had to be restrained with ongoing effort. While they had dubbed her "the Central Park Jogger," the judicial system was already working on indicting the five teenagers who confessed to the brutal attack. [In 1989, the five juvenile males who were suspected of the assault were tried and convicted for the crime. In 2002, the convictions were vacated when Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer serving a life sentence for other crimes, claimed to have committed the crime alone. The DNA evidence confirmed his claim.]

Trisha has no recollection of the attack. In fact, she has a memory void of five-and-a-half weeks. Her doctor explained to her that full memory loss is universal with severe brain injuries. In his words from her memoir, Dr. Robert Kurtz says, "Each memory is implanted, initially as a result of an electrical phenomenon, and then after a few days it gets chemically imprinted on the brain cells, the latter being the more permanent memory storage, the electrical one being transient. Brain traumas — blows, then subsequent poor oxygenation of the brain — result in the wiping out of the recorded electrical impulses...the electrical moment never made it to the brain cells."

Part of her wishes she could remember what happened that night. She could not remember during the 1990 trials of the Central Park Five at which she testified, nor in 2002 when Matias Reyes, a convicted serial rapist, claimed that he alone attacked her. DNA evidence put him at the crime scene. And until recently,  questions lingered. Did Reyes act alone? Were the Central Park Five involved? Were they coerced by police into confessing?

Most of the time, however, Trisha is grateful for her inability to remember what happened. It has spared her flashbacks, nightmares, and PTSD. "My memory of that night is like film that’s been overexposed, the pictures will never manifest," she says.

Sometimes she imagines that night. How could she not? "I picture myself and I think how terrified I must have been. But I can't dwell on it," she says. "Yes, I suffered a huge level of violence, but I also received an enormous amount of love and support, which helped fuel my recovery." Trisha, who had seven years of psychotherapy to deal with issues including her eating disorder, has never allowed herself to be called a victim, only a survivor. "I think it’s a mindset, an attitude, not just a matter of semantics. I had to take responsibility for my own healing."

It's up to me, now
After seven weeks in the acute care hospital and a long, painful, bumpy ambulance ride to Gaylord Hospital in Connecticut, Trisha's true mettle would be tested in the rehab setting. She arrived in a wheelchair, unable to walk or find balance. She couldn't speak clearly and she had permanently lost her sense of smell. She had headaches, double-vision, and her body and mind still felt like a heavy muddle of crossed signals. Every movement, even rolling over in bed, took enormous effort. "Of course, there were very frustrating and difficult times in rehab, but the 'art' of those rehab specialists is that they know when to push and when to pull back," she says. "The key is that I saw improvement — in everything — even though it seemed glacial at times. When you're down so low, you have great opportunity to go forward. There is a lesson in that for all of us — setting reasonable expectations. That way you can rebuild your confidence as you achieve goals, however small they might be, and from there keep pushing a little more each day — physically and cognitively. I've found that when I feel good about myself, I can do almost anything!"

Trisha also talks about something that happened organically. "I had never heard of the terms 'mindfulness' or 'present moment.' I had always been one of those driven people who push and push ahead, competing and striving for more and better," she says. "But during my recovery, it's like my body took over and it knew, intuitively, that I had to be present in the here and now. I couldn't indulge myself with 'what ifs' and 'whys.' I had to focus on what my mind and body were doing at each moment — finding the strength to walk between the parallel bars, tie my shoe, or stay centered enough to recall a word or idea."

Having her job back at Salomon Brothers when she left the independent living center at Gaylord in December 1989 also played a pivotal role in her recovery. "I look at Bob Woodruff back at ABC after his recovery and I realize how lucky both of us were to have our jobs," she says. "Having a sense of purpose helps rebuild your sense of self. The power of that is priceless."

Running
While at Gaylord, newly walking, her physical therapist, Nelson, who was also a part of the Achilles Track Club, asked her if she'd like to join a group of runners and walkers — individuals with varied disabilities including amputation, cancer, muscular sclerosis, stroke, traumatic brain injury, and visual impairment. They met in the parking lot where there was a quarter-mile loop. When she was almost at the end, struggling up a tiny but seemingly insurmountable hill, Nelson took her arm and they finished together. "I felt so good to be outside, to be moving again," she says. "I felt acutely aware of the fact that I was taking something back that had belonged to me and had been taken away."

When Trisha talks to groups about her experience, she tells them about this first run. "I think about that morning and was so proud of how far I had come. It gave me hope. I didn't look back at the fact that I used to be able to run five or 10 miles without even thinking about it. Instead, I realized that from hope emerges possibility."

In 1995, Trisha ran the New York Marathon in just under four-and-a-half hours. When she ran the last leg through Central Park, she knew she would finish. She had reclaimed her life, but she was not the old Trisha. Yes, she still has physical and cognitive issues that will probably remain forever, but she has somehow come to accept herself on a deeper level. Though she acknowledges that every hurdle she has cleared has involved a long and tough process, the blending of her successes and frailties has made her a more alive person.

Sharing her story
The first time she publically shared her story was at a rehab hospital in Boston. She was co-presenting with Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, author and pioneer in the field of mind/body medicine. "Talking that day and witnessing such an incredible response from the patients, physicians, and staff in the audience, I realized that stories heal," she says. Trisha left her job at Salomon Brothers in 1998 to pursue her passion to help others by sharing her experience. "I continue to get inspired by the human spirit and how tragedy can often lead to positive change and to deeper human connection."

Back in the 1990s, people with TBI were told that there is a six-to-12–month window of recovery and then improvement plateaus. "But I see in myself that that is not true," she says. "And now with all this research on neuroplasticity — my new favorite word — well, who knows how far recovery can go?"

"I tell people with brain injury, 'You might be different, but different doesn't mean worse'," she says. "That can be a powerful realization when you are feeling close to defeat."

Hope and possibility
During the early months of her recovery, Trisha received a FedEx package. Inside the box was a medal from that November's New York City Marathon. The sender wrote that he hadn't run a marathon for six years but had been inspired to run it in her honor "...so that you could have this medal as you come closer to finishing your own marathon." Even now, when she holds the medal in her hands, she thinks of what she tries to share with others from her experiences: the simple power of hope and possibility.

Today, Trisha offers her message of hope and possibility by speaking to businesses, healthcare facilities, universities, high schools, brain injury associations, and women's centers across the country. Her website is www.centralparkjogger.com.

To comment or to share your story, contact Victoria Tilney McDonough at vmcdonough@weta.org.

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