Mykal Duncan doesn't remember much about the day she almost died.
She doesn’t remember being on the dance cam at the Kansas City Royals game, or turning to her friend Samantha after the camera left them and saying she saw spots. Before Samantha’s parents could determine whether she was joking, Mykal collapsed, her head hitting concrete. Her heart had stopped.
The longest 72 hours
The Savannah, Mo., 15-year-old almost didn’t end up at that game on May 23. Her neighbors, Brian and Tammy Bishop, offered her a ticket only after their son decided at the last minute not to go — which ended up being the first of several small details that saved her life.
One of these details was Mr. Bishop himself, an ER nurse who began CPR on Mykal as soon as he couldn’t find a pulse. Then there were the defibrillator and paramedics on-hand at Kauffman Stadium, as well as the relatively short ambulance ride to Children’s Mercy — none of which Mykal would have had at home in Savannah.
But her parents, Jason and Dyann Duncan, knew nothing of these advantages when word reached them that Mykal had collapsed. They didn’t even know how serious her situation was until they reached Children’s Mercy and saw what looked to be 20 doctors and nurses surrounding her in a flurry of activity. She was in an induced coma at that point to keep her brain from swelling from the hit she took to her head when she fell.
“In the ICU, they told us she was the sickest little girl they had in the hospital that night,” Mrs. Duncan says. “They didn’t know if she’d make it.”
And even if she did survive, there was no guarantee she wouldn’t have brain damage. It would be 72 hours before doctors would bring her out of the coma, and in the meantime, almost all anyone could do for her was pray.
They also gave her music, which research has shown to be helpful for coma patients. Hospital staff supplied a CD player and a couple of albums by Taylor Swift, Mykal’s favorite artist. And when the time came to warm her body and wake her up, it was one of these songs that helped show Mykal was still herself.
“She was still unconscious, but she was lip-synching to ‘Fearless,’” Mrs. Duncan says. “That was just a ‘praise God’ moment. We didn’t know what kind of damage had been done, but we knew she was still our little girl enough to know a Taylor Swift song.”
A medical mystery
Mykal soon gave other signs of being herself. Her first words after the breathing tube was removed from her mouth were “I didn’t give up.” Then, she declared that she had to take her math final.
The time for that final had passed by then, and if there was any perk to having suffered sudden cardiac arrest, it was that she wasn’t required to make it up. But Mykal did face plenty of medical tests — none of which revealed anything wrong with the anatomy or functioning of her heart. Still, Children’s Mercy wouldn’t let her leave without having a cardiac defibrillator implanted in her heart that, in the event that it stopped beating again, would shock it back to life.
When she left the hospital after two and a half weeks, although she didn’t know what had caused the medical event that put her there, Mykal did know one thing: She had people wishing her well from all over the world.
A Facebook page requesting prayer for her had gone viral, and she received mail from strangers all over the United States, as well as numerous other countries.
“We still have people who are praying that we find an answer,” Mrs. Duncan says, “which would be nice, but we’re going to live like God healed her.”
A new life
Living as though she’s healed doesn’t mean disregarding medical advice; in a number of ways, Mykal must live differently now. She’s not allowed to swim anymore — let alone to swim competitively, as she used to — or to put her lifeguard training to use. She takes medicine every day, and she’ll never be eligible to be a pilot, a firefighter, a policeman, a paramedic or in the military.
Fortunately, what Mykal wants to be is a singer/songwriter. And in the meantime, although some activities are off-limits for her, she can still be on the golf and debate teams and in the band at Savannah High School. She notes she’s moved on and doesn’t think much about what happened to her.
But she did have an opportunity in September to make something positive out of the medical scare. The Royals invited her to bring 30 people and come watch a game from a suite at their stadium. She was even able to throw the first pitch and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in front of everyone in the stands, wearing a jersey with her name on the back that the team had given her.
But what was perhaps most significant about the evening was that it was designated Sudden Cardiac Arrest Awareness Night and served to educate people on what had happened not only to Mykal but to approximately 700 other students over the course of a year.
“We don’t want this to go to waste and just be our little family thing,” Mrs. Duncan says. “We want it to come to light so it might save a life.”
Although it wasn’t the case for Mykal, a number of students who suffer sudden cardiac arrest have Long QT syndrome, a heart rhythm disorder that can cause the heart to beat erratically long enough to lead to sudden death. The Duncans learned after Mykal’s incident that a simple, relatively inexpensive test can be used to detect the condition — and now feel strongly that this test should be required at sports physicals.
If any other lesson has come from what she went through, Mykal thinks it’s one in living life to the fullest.
“Don’t be worried about doing something that’s risky,” she says. “I can’t ride roller coasters now. I hated them before, but now I kind of regret not riding them.”
Pausing a moment, she thinks of another way to put it.
“I guess you could sum it all up with YOLO,” she laughs.
“Unless you’re you,” her mom points out. “You’ve kind of lived twice.”