SOMERSET, NJ - Trisha Meili, the woman more publicly known as the Central Park Jogger, had taken the stage for just a few moments when she asked everyone to close their eyes and proceeded to take them through a relaxation exercise.

The more than 250 nurses in the audience at the Atlantic Neuroscience Institute’s annual nursing symposium complied, near-silence blanketing the main hall of the Palace at Somerset Park for a few minutes.  The purpose of the exercise, Meili told the audience, was to realize “when we’re calm, we can deal with any situation that’s in front of us with an open mind.”

It is an exercise – and a challenge – that Meili has had no shortage of opportunities to practice in the years since she was beaten, sexually assaulted and left for dead during an evening run in Central Park in 1989 – from learning to accept the permanent changes caused by the attack, to the incremental steps of her recovery, returning to her love of running and becoming an outspoken icon of resiliency.  She shared that and other lessons she learned during her recovery as she delivered the symposium’s keynote speech, giving the nurses a unique patient’s perspective of nurses’ roles in patient care.

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“Each of you plays a very important part in helping others on their journey to wholeness,” Meili told the audience. “Thank you, because we patients need you.”

Meili said nurses have a role in not only healing patients’ bodies but their psyches as well. She told of how one nurse at Metropolitan Hospital would speak to her at her bedside while Meili lay in a coma. The nurse, who apparently took umbrage at doctors speaking grimly at her bedside, instead opted to take a more positive tone, hoping that the words would have a subconscious effect.

“Every night, when the doctors would leave my room, she would go to the edge of my bed and say, ‘don’t pay them any mind. What do they know? Who’s the captain of this ship?’” Meili said. Though she would not learn of this until told later in her recovery, Meili believes that the nurse’s words had an effect.

“I was responsible for my recovery, and that was what my mind needed to hear,” Meili said.

She also discussed having to accept that her life after the attack would be markedly different than it had been before the act. The avid runner, who once jogged several miles a day, initially struggled to once again be able to regain the ability to run a fraction of what she once could, and still has lingering cognitive difficulties due to the serious head injury from the attack.

“I looked at the reality that was mine, which wasn’t good, but I worked as hard as possible to make it as good as I could,” Meili said.

Healing, Meili told the nurses, involves developing trust with patients and their families in their most vulnerable states. She urged nurses in the audience to live and act in the present, by asking families ‘what can we do to make it better?”

“And just by asking that question, we are taking control, we are taking responsibility,” Meili said.

She showed the audience the medal given to her by the winner of the 1989 New York City Marathon, who ran in her honor. It was an inspiration for her to take control and recover. In 1995, Meili ran the race herself, including part of the course that took her through Central Park.

“I felt very proud of the work that had gotten me there,” Meili said. “I had reclaimed my life in that park, and I knew that I would finish.”

Emily Verastegui, Nabeela Gull and Wilhemina Ungco, a trio of critical care nurses from St. Peter’s University Hospital, in New Brunswick, called Meili the “epitome of hope,” and they and other guests at the event said it was refreshing to hear a patient’s point of view.

“She’s an inspiration because we never hear from our patients,” Gull, one of the CCRNs, said.

“Very few (patients) actually come back to say thanks, so it’s nice to see such a positive end result,” said Mary Pfister, health care coordinator of Cerebral Palsy of North Jersey, in Livingston.

Meili’s appearance at the symposium had a more direct effect on Shirlene Santa Cruz Fisher, a neuroscience nurse at Overlook Hospital. Fisher’s mother, Violeta Santa Cruz, was among the orthopedic nurses who treated Meili at Metropolitan Hospital.

Years before federal patient privacy laws came into being, Fisher said that her mother spoke little about treating Meili, even among family, considering the discussion of details about Meili as a compromise of the patient’s dignity and privacy.

Fisher said that at the time she was impressed that her mother had a part in the recovery of the women whose plight gripped national headlines, but fully understood her mother’s decision not to divulge details.

“I was amazed. I guess, then, I saw it as my mom treating somebody,” Fisher said. “My mom was very professional about it.”

Santa Cruz, who now works on Riker’s Island state prison, was unable to attend the event. Fisher told Meili about her mother before the speech, and the two embraced. Later on, Meili signed a copy of her book for Fisher, which the nurse planned to give to her mother.

“This is why you’re a nurse,” Fisher said she would say when she told her mother about meeting Meili. “This is why I’m a nurse.”

Held on September 23, this was the 11th annual nursing symposium held by the Atlantic Neuroscience Institute, located at both Overlook Hospital and Morristown Memorial Hospital. The event each year draws nurses from throughout New Jersey to hear the latest news and research in neuroscience, as well as to honor nurses who have made strides in the field.

Prior to Meili’s speech, Laura Reilly, RN, a neuro/surgical/trauma nurse at Morristown Memorial Hospital’s intensive care unit, received the Atlantic Health Neuroscience Nurse of the Year Award.

“It feels great to have all your hard work recognized,” Reilly said. “Technology has really moved the neurosciences forward and we are able to treat more patients, save more brain and more lives. It is important for neuroscience health care providers to keep up with the fast-pace of the industry and provide the best care possible for our patients. Passion, dedication, knowledge, and experience are what it takes to stay ahead in the exciting and challenging field of neuroscience nursing.”

Nurses at the symposium also heard from a number of featured speakers, including Dai Wai M. Olson, CCRN, assistant professor of medicine and neurology at Duke University Medical Center, who discussed neuroscience nursing in the use of hypothermia for patients, and Andrew B. Lassman, MD, the director of the neuro-oncology fellowship training program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who discussed the treatment of adult glioblastoma, a form of brain tumor.

The symposium also featured presentations by several experts in neuroscience, including Roger Kurlan, MD, director of the Atlantic Neuroscience Institute Movement Disorders Program based at Overlook Hospital, who discussed deep brain stimulation, the process of implanting electrodes in the brain to affect brain cells for neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease. Kurlan discussed the procedure’s potential future uses, such as for depression and other behavioral issues.

“DBS can be a dramatic therapy for a number of neurological disorders, but as applied to psychiatric disturbances, this is all starting to sound like science fiction, and it brings up a number of ethical issues,” Kurlan said. “This is something society should be discussing, if not already, then soon.”

Debra Badura, a nurse with Atlantic Home Care and Hospice, and Joan Ferrelli, a nurse practitioner who works for the Veteran’s Administration at the James J. Howard Outpatient Clinic in Brick, took special note of Kurlan’s discussion of deep brain stimulation. Both said that the DBS’s potential applications in addressing quality of life issues for patients held potential.

“It’s going to be a new treatment modality,” with broader uses, Ferrelli predicted.

Carl S. Goldstein, MD, division chief, nephrology, and director, dialysis services, Overlook Hospital, also spoke about high blood pressure’s effect on the brain, and emphasized that lifestyle changes, such as eating less salt, would be beneficial in reducing cardiovascular events.

The critical care nurses from St. Peter’s University Hospital said they came to the conference seeking to hear about subjects that they might not often encounter in their line of nursing.

“I think it’s necessary in this day and age that critical care nurses be versatile,” Ungco said.

“I’m going to walk away from this conference with things to talk about with my nurse manager,” said Ungco.

The Atlantic Neuroscience Institute, a regional leader in neuroscience care, offers a broad range of advanced neurological, neurosurgical and neurodiagnostic services in a hospital setting. Clinicians are active participants in clinical research, and ANI strives to educate community, patients and practitioners regarding signs, symptoms and advanced treatment options of neurological disorders and disease.

Atlantic Neuroscience Institute has established a reputation for excellence in the diagnosis and treatment of numerous neurological diseases and disorders. ANI includes several specialized programs and centers at Overlook Hospital and Morristown Memorial Hospital, such as the state-designated Comprehensive Stroke Centers at both campuses, the Epilepsy Center, Concussion Center, Movement Disorders Program and the Brain Tumor Center of New Jersey, all based at Overlook.

For more information about the Atlantic Neuroscience Institute, visit: