Noelle McNeil
"Heaven Exists"


Young woman documents miraculous recovery
November 27, 2009 05:51 AM

WEST LONG BRANCH - Noelle McNeil can pass for a typical college student, though her gait sometimes is uneven and she uses her left hand to greet people because her right one doesn't work too well anymore.

A senior at Monmouth University, she already has lived a lifetime - and more - in her 24 years.

Tall and athletic, she was a nationally ranked equestrian until Aug. 1, 2005, when a horse she was riding at a show refused a jump, lost its footing and sent the Little Silver resident crashing to the ground, battering her brain and body, some felt, beyond all hope.

McNeil's mother, Rosemary Richards, challenged that mind-set, even opposing health care workers' use of the clinical term "vegetative" to describe McNeil's condition in the days following the accident.

Doctors tried to tell Richards that there was no harm in the reference because McNeil could not hear their descriptions during her 11-day coma.

"You don't know that," her mother replied. "I don't give a damn. You are never to call my daughter a rutabaga again."

McNeil is a 2003 graduate of Red Bank Catholic, where she played basketball and ran track. In the summer of 2005, she was still in prime physical shape. At the time of the accident, her horse, Redwood, was already at James Madison University in Virginia where she was part of the riding team and had just completed her sophomore year.

McNeil has no memory of the accident, although she knows she was wearing the best riding helmet that money could buy. She was unconscious and barely alive when she was flown by helicopter to Robert Wood Johnson University Medical Center in New Brunswick, a regional trauma center.

The staff there was not optimistic, although McNeil's family, including big brother Sean, and her father and stepfather, kept a constant vigil. Someone was with her round the clock as she hovered between life and death, first developing pneumonia and then sepsis as her body and brain reacted to what is called closed-head injury - brain trauma her mother likened to shaken baby syndrome - and other injuries, such as broken ribs.

McNeil was diagnosed with diffuse axonal injury in which many of the connections in the brain were severed. She said less than 3 percent of such patients make meaningful recoveries.

McNeil discussed her accident and her years of rehabilitation and recovery during a series of conversations in which she acknowledged she has many reasons to be thankful today.

"Simple pleasures, most of us never realize how important they are," she said. "I will never take them for granted again."

The journey

After the spill in 2005, while her family and community prayed for a bedside miracle, the comatose McNeil was on an otherworldly journey. McNeil said she remembers leaving her body, gliding over brightly lit clouds into a brightly lit place where she encountered her Uncle Joe, her father's brother, who had died several years before.

"I asked Joe if this was heaven," McNeil explains in her book "Heaven Exists." "He said yes. I asked if I could go back because I did not want to leave my life yet. I had so much more left I wanted to do."

Communicating telepathically, she said, Uncle Joe ultimately told her she could return to her body. He promised she would recover but told her it would take a long time.

"I had been to heaven and now I would have a glimpse of what hell is - waking up to find myself totally debilitated in a hospital, unable to eat, walk or function in any real sense," she wrote.

McNeil had to learn nearly every behavior anew, from walking to feeding herself to toilet training.

But her account of heaven seemed to be accepted by those around her.

"I think (people) feel a sense of hope and encouragement from the story," she said.

Her lesson from her trip?

"I love my life and I would not want to die any time soon but when it is my time, it is my time," McNeil said. "I trust it."

After two weeks, McNeil was transferred to JFK Medical Center in Edison, a brain trauma rehabilitation center. There she realized the true extent of her injuries, and she begged for cyanide pills or even drain cleaner or bleach, which she believed she could use to end her life.

But her family and caretakers kept her alive, and after two months she was moved to Hartwyck at Oak Tree, another rehabilitation facility in Edison, where McNeil began to try to stand, at first for a few seconds at a time. Seconds then became minutes. Her feeding tube was removed. And on Nov. 25, 2005, she was a guest at her brother's wedding, managing to climb three steps before collapsing into the waiting and dreaded wheelchair.

"I was so unbelievably happy that I was able to be there," McNeil said.

Soon, McNeil was an outpatient, looking for a college more suited to her new challenges.

She and her family are grateful that Monmouth University is so accessible to disabled students like her. McNeil found a home where she was not viewed as a freak. Further, she became a role model, her campus friends said.

When lingering brain trauma issues made too difficult keeping all the numbers in her head that were required of a finance major, McNeil set her sights on a marketing degree. It was there she met Professor John S. Buzza and his entrepreneurship students.

Now, they have put together a fundraiser where they hope to raise enough money to hire a publicist to promote McNeil's book. Even without any real publicity, the book, with its message of adversity overcome, seems to be rising in popularity.

"I think she is a realist with an optimistic side," said Buzza, noting McNeil hopes to have a career as a public speaker and disability advocate. "She knows and understands her disability. She knows and understands her limitations. She doesn't let it prohibit her from persevering. She lives a very normal life. She is getting better every day through perseverance and hard work and discipline and effort. She already knows all the things that are virtually impossible to teach."

The road back

Even Buzza can see McNeil's recovery continues.

When she first came to Monmouth, she couldn't drive. She needed an aide and a special device to help her take notes. She cannot shake hands with her right hand. Sometimes she stumbles or has trouble remembering the exact word. She tires easily. She has recurrent back and neck pain.

But she is on the dean's list and she works out to keep physically fit. She will walk across the stage in May to accept her degree, which will be conferred - more than likely - with honors.

"My right hand kind of is what it is," McNeil said. "I am so fortunate to have recovered to this point that I try not to complain about any imperfections that I have regarding this injury."

But it wasn't always easy for her, and it is not so easy now. When she found herself slipping into depression, she relied on medication. She said there is no shame in it, and calls the antidepressant drugs "a tablet of hope for many people."

McNeil will celebrate Thanksgiving today with her family. She appreciates the gifts in her life and notes she is different from her pre-accident days when she placed too much emphasis on looks and clothes.

"I am unbelievably thankful for a chance at life," McNeil said in an e-mail. "Yes, what happened was emotionally a very painful accident. . . . But I prayed day in and day out for help from above, and I absolutely think I have been granted a second chance at life. No more unrealistic, shallow ideals. I am who I am (my hand may shake) but I am here."

McNeil's mother says Thanksgiving has a whole different meaning since McNeil's recovery. There is no sweating of the small stuff, Richards said.

"I can remember when they met me with the priest and the social worker at the trauma center, and it was clear that they did not think Noelle would survive this injury, (and remembering) fervently praying that God would let her stay with me, and that I would accept and handle whatever her condition was, as long as she did not die," her mother recalls. "I meant it.

"I came so close to losing her that there is very little in life that I now consider important enough to get stressed out over," Richards said. "I am thankful that Noelle is alive, that we get up every day and have coffee. I am thankful that when I watch her walk now, it is much smoother than it used to be. I am thankful that she can now hug me back, even with the ataxic right hand."

McNeil's philosophy can best be summed up by the closing words of her book, a work that also includes an appeal to help provide for returning soldiers suffering from brain trauma. We are in this together, she said, and we must care for one another.

"Tragedy can happen to any one of us at any time," McNeil wrote. "What you do with the tragedy determines who you are."