Cheryl McJoy

A Veteran’s Rise from a Shattering Injury to a Life of Laughter

Cheryl McJoy, or “emcee Joy,” as she calls herself playfully, felt a sense of doom from the moment she was assigned to repair an engine on a P-3C Orion Aircraft in Okinawa, Japan, where she was deployed as a member of the U.S. Navy.

Her memory of that day in 1996 and its aftermath is fragmented, and her medical records didn’t make it back to the United States. However, Cheryl recalls stepping out the aircraft’s emergency exit window and onto the wing and instantly slipping on the viscous slick of engine oil. With nothing around her but air, she plummeted to the ground, around 16 feet below, and landed on her head. The impact of the fall was so intense that her helmet cracked. Cheryl lost consciousness. Her recollection of the hospital stay and subsequent care is spotty.

The day would mark the beginning of an arduous quest to receive a diagnosis and proper treatment for incapacitating headache attacks, whose origin she’d only discover two decades later. Despite the physical and emotional pain she’s endured since the event, Cheryl laughs often and easily. Regarding how narrowly she dodged death, she chuckles, “Those were some grandmama prayers from a long time ago.”

Traumatic Brain Injury—The Silent Epidemic

Post-fall, as she strove to cope with the debilitating ache in her head and maintain the demands of active duty, she had trouble convincing doctors to take her pain seriously. Believing her discomfort was an emotional reaction to the incident, she was referred to a psychiatrist. Having always prided herself on her health, she tried to remain stoic in spite of her agony—especially since she felt the pressure of representing others like her. “I don’t reflect one female but all. I reflect all Black women and all Black people. Doctors’ preconceived ideas were weighing heavily on me.”

Upon returning to the states, Cheryl’s headache attacks became chronic, and soon she was diagnosed with migraine. She also began to struggle with memory loss, frequently losing her thought mid-sentence. At one point, she was hospitalized because she had symptoms resembling a stroke. However, multiple scans and tests didn’t expose any physical signs of illness, so doctors continued to consider her pain psychological in nature, prescribing antidepressants. Other physicians even suggested her headache attacks were a result of her menstruation cycle and asked her to complete a period tracker.

She says with exasperation: “All this time, I have been explaining: ‘I fell on my head, y’all.’ I simply felt no one was listening.”

In those early years of seeking treatment, little was known about the link between traumatic brain injury (TBI) and headache and migraine. It wasn’t until 2003 that a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report to Congress referred to TBI as the “silent epidemic.” Yet scant literature existed on headache and migraine attacks specifically related to post-concussion and TBI.

Recently, the topic has received more focus, particularly with the increased awareness of the long-lasting effects of head injuries in professional sports and with the high incidence of post-TBI headache in soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Among U.S. soldiers with post-traumatic headache associated with blast trauma, the majority are diagnosed with migraine. Current research continues to emphasize the correlation between TBI and migraine.

Connecting the Pieces

Cheryl would spend more than a decade and a half searching for answers and relief. In 2013, retired from the military and living in Chicago, Cheryl despaired over the chunks of her life she’d lost from the debilitating pain and confusion. However, a spark of hope remained, largely on account of her loving community, a group so big she says would take two days to name: “Even when the pain got so bad and the doctors couldn’t tell me what was wrong, I never thought about killing myself because I did have such a great support system. I’ve been blessed as far as that goes.”

Cheryl’s perseverance finally led her to clarity and healing in 2014, when she sought care at Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center, a Veterans Affairs hospital in North Chicago. There, she met Debrah Safron, NP, a nurse practitioner who listened deeply to Cheryl and thoughtfully reassembled the long disconnected parts of her story, identifying the link between the migraine attacks and the fall, and finally diagnosing her with TBI.

Cheryl now had the validation and language to express the truth of her condition. The health center referred Cheryl to its TBI clinic, and she began seeing a neuropsychologist to help her with triggers and signals, including stress, diet, caffeine, and lack of sleep. She also received treatment at a memory clinic, beginning cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to process the repressed emotions around her fall and to gain mindfulness strategies to ride the inevitable pain waves: “I finally learned there was an underlying issue and it had a name. Me and TBI had been hanging out for years. This houseguest had been living in my attic, and I could finally bring it out.”

While overall her pain is far more manageable, Cheryl’s migraine attacks have increased since the start of the pandemic. The Headache and Migraine Policy Forum found in a recent survey that 69% of respondents reported a significant rise in monthly migraine attacks. During this time, Cheryl has devoted increased energy toward her well-being. While she refuses all medication, primarily because of side effects intolerable to her, she is intentional about caring for her brain. Recently, she’s found relief with an FDA-approved, noninvasive medical device that stimulates the vagus nerve to help block the pain signals that cause migraine.

Crafting a life with minimal stress and a lot of her “emcee Joy” positivity helps, too—she swears by laughter therapy.

A Vision for Hope

Cheryl admits that up until 2014, she’d buried what happened on the wing of the airplane. She believes her refusal to talk about the accident increased her stress and, in turn, her migraine. When she is having a bad day and struggles to get up, she practices vigilant gratitude. Sometimes when confined to her bed, she’ll place her palms down beside her and give thanks for something as simple as clean sheets. Cheryl also finds grounding from her vision wall—her “rabbit hole prevention plan”—that includes a fluorescent array of words like “Dreams” and “Restored,” fortifying affirmations such as “Every day I am getting better and better,” and pictures of her grandchildren.

Gazing at the montage reminds her that what happened to her in Japan and its aftermath is only a part of the powerful woman that is Cheryl McJoy. When describing her vision board and process, she could be referring to the life she’s crafted, despite pain. “It’s not finished,” she says. “It’s still a work in progress. You know… as I add more things to it.”

She laughs once more. Her laugh is spontaneous, but also, perhaps, the reaction of a woman who is careful to live her life in ways that will help her rise up again and again.

—Sara Walsh