LIVERMORE, Calif. — Lying on her back across a row of padded chairs, Mariela Meylan grimaces, struggling to stretch her arms skyward.
Through a gentle form of yoga, she’s training her damaged brain to more effectively communicate with her limbs.
“My body is not in so much in pain as it was before,” the former soldier says slowly, but intelligibly. “Everything is moving in the right direction.”
It is a miracle, combined with sheer will and a mother’s determination, that Meylan is moving at all — or even alive.
She was a heartbeat from death a decade ago, her body left mangled in the dust after being struck by a hit-and-run driver. She was in a coma for eight months; left partially paralyzed, unable to speak or eat. Doctors told her mother she’d never recover, and if she awoke, she’d be a “vegetable” for the rest of her life.
Yet after a decade of hospital and in-home nursing care, physical rehabilitation and various alternative therapies, Meylan, 34, can speak and walk with the help of a cane. She’s learning to sew, she swims, plays piano and rides horses. She was given a wheelchair to practice playing basketball and recently drove a go-cart by herself around a Livermore track, her face beaming.
“I felt like a kid again,” Meylan said.
It’s been a slow but startling recovery for Meylan since her brush with death in 2004. Fresh off a second tour of duty in Iraq, the Army specialist was in a convoy in Kuwait when one of the trucks got a flat. Mariela got out to help when a car slammed into her and three other soldiers. Two of the soldiers died; Mariela hung on.
She doesn’t remember anything about the crash or its aftermath. The Army, according to her adoptive mother, Lisette Meylan, was vague about the circumstances. Meylan — whose daughter, Jaela, was just a year old at the time — had suffered a severe traumatic brain injury, a dislocated hip, collapsed lung, severed liver and a stroke caused by an emergency medical procedure, leaving her partially paralyzed. She had slipped into a coma, and doctors told Lisette Meylan her daughter would never recover.
“The doctors wanted to take her off life support,” she said. “One day at Walter Reed (National Military Medical Center), a psychologist made sure we knew she would never wake up. I cried that day. Then I thought, what the hell does he know?”
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, nearly 300,000 cases of traumatic brain injury were diagnosed in the armed forces from 2000-2013. Of those, about 2,900 were classified as severe, with another 4,400 reported as penetrating or open-head injuries. More than 80 percent resulted from vehicular crashes, falls, recreational activities or training. Of the female soldiers deployed since 2001, the department said, 5 percent have suffered some form of traumatic brain injury.
Doug Miller, a member of Alameda County’s Veterans Affairs Commission, met Mariela through the Army’s Wounded Warrior Program, a mentorship assisting severely injured soldiers. Miller said he has seen many veterans with traumatic brain injuries improve within the first five years of their injuries, and many of those recoveries, like Meylan’s, have been “significant.”
“Her determination has never wavered,” Miller said. “She considers it her job to improve her physical condition. … She’s someone to be admired.”
Meylan awoke from her coma unable to walk or talk and dependent on feeding and breathing tubes. She spent three years recuperating in veterans’ hospitals from Washington, D.C., to Palo Alto and Livermore. It took a year for her to regain her speech, and she was wheelchair-bound for five years.
“(The injury) made moving difficult,” Meylan said. “My mind wanted to go but my legs did not want to get me there. It was very tough.”
Unsatisfied with the prognoses she was hearing from the Department of Veterans Affairs, Lisette Meylan pursued alternative treatments for her daughter, such as craniosacral therapy — a light-touch bodywork for the head, neck and spine — acupuncture and a spiritual healer.
Though Meylan still struggles with short-term memory loss — she’s unable to remember events from one minute to the next — Lisette Meylan said her daughter’s cognitive abilities are better now than even a few months ago. With the help of a psychologist, Meylan is memorizing poetry to improve her recall.
Where she once needed constant care, Meylan is on a steady path to independence.
“(Besides driving), I’m not doing anything for her now,” Lisette Meylan said.
Every day, she takes Meylan to her many appointments: to a Livermore ranch for horse therapy, to San Jose for sessions on a state-of-the-art Vasper elliptical machine, and to Pleasanton for workouts with the AlterG, a special treadmill that allows her to walk in an airtight, weightless environment. The combined therapies, paid for out of Meylan’s VA benefits, have done wonders for her daughter’s strength, balance and muscle control, she said.
Kate Mackinnon, a craniosacral therapist who has treated Meylan since she was fully reliant on nursing care, devoted part of her book, “From My Hands and Heart,” to her client’s progress.
“It’s miraculous,” Mackinnon said. “She’s just a huge inspiration because of her perseverance. All these limits were put on her and she just keeps busting through them.”
Kate Coughlin, owner of Downtown Yoga in Pleasanton, provides Meylan with one-on-one instruction on a weekly basis.
“In terms of her recovery, it’s not a small thing,” Coughlin said. “She’s a strong soul, brave, and never gives up. There’s a lot to be said for her attitude.”
Meylan is upbeat about her progress and has her sights set on learning to cook and care for her 10-year-old daughter, who lives with her father in another state. She’s also looking forward to her first yoga retreat. The practice, she said, makes her feel stronger and more flexible.
“It’s motivation to (say), ‘I’m not as weak as you think I am,’ ” Meylan said.