In 2017, when she began battling a rare form of head and neck cancer, 31-year-old Meryl Barns Zigila harnessed her determination. The certified music therapist and Occupational Therapy graduate student was accustomed to encouraging others through the physical and emotional strains of illness. Now, she steeled herself for her own fight, one that would require significant medical intervention—including an invasive surgical restructuring of her body, chemotherapy, radiation, and multiple stays in the ICU—and one that would ultimately take her life. “She’s the toughest person I’ve ever known,” said her father, Bill Barns, a retired naval officer. “I know a lot about strength and trial under fire and managing stress, but I don’t know anyone as tough as Meryl.”
To Bill and his wife, Joan, it seems as though their daughter entered the world with an impressive degree of fortitude. At age three, she developed a fascination with the violin that could not be satisfied by the toy model her parents gifted to her. “We thought, that’s so cute,” said Joan. “We were young parents who listened to rock music. We didn’t know where she was getting this thing about the violin.” Joan and Bill consulted a music teacher, who advised introducing Meryl to the piano before graduating her to the more difficult instrument. This did not go well. “She hated piano!” said Bill. According to Meryl, she needed to play the violin. And so, she did. Starting at age six, as a Navy junior living with her family in Japan, Meryl played with the determination, generosity, and joy that would propel her toward a career in music therapy and characterize much of her short life. “She had a gift,” said Bill.
Developing and sharing that gift was important to Meryl. She spent her formative years in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where, in addition to swimming competitively and working as a lifeguard, she played in the local symphony. When she moved several hours west to study music therapy at Radford University, she earned the position of Concert Master in the school’s Chamber Orchestra. For her senior recital, in 2008, she performed a rich assortment of classical pieces that culminated in a more popular tune: “Ants Marching” by Dave Matthews Band. A veritable anthem for living one’s life to the fullest, the song was an appropriate choice for a young woman who delighted in adventure, sought professional growth at every opportunity, and practiced a fearless kind of love for her friends, her family, and God.
As a new college graduate, Meryl launched her music therapy career in San Diego, where she had earned a prestigious internship with a private practice. She invited her mother, Joan, to join her on her drive across the country, a journey the pair repeated when Meryl decided to return to the East Coast. Her next post, at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, enabled her to flourish both professionally and personally. During her first week in her new city, she met her future husband, Brett Zigila, who, as it turned out, also worked at All Children’s Hospital. The couple shared a love of travel and the outdoors, qualities that made them natural adventurers in Florida and, later, in Denver, Colorado, where they relocated for Brett’s career. They married in 2013, at Meryl’s Episcopalian parish in Virginia Beach, and eventually made their way back to Florida, this time guided by Meryl’s desire to pursue her Occupational Therapy degree at Barry University.
Her interest in expanding her therapeutic impact is a testament to what Joan calls Meryl’s therapist’s heart. As a music therapist, she was already working in a variety of clinical settings and with every demographic—from young children overcoming cancer or developmental delays to seniors struggling with dementia—and yet she wanted to learn a new way of healing. “She looked at programs all over the country,” said Joan, whose own early interest in OT had inspired her daughter. She chose Barry because the program offered the flexibility that would allow her to work while she attended classes. Immediately, Meryl made an impression on her peers and professors, who gravitated to her warmth and enthusiasm. Her faculty mentors, impressed by the breadth of her professional knowledge, considered her a “rising star.” She developed close friendships within her cohort and stepped easily into the role of cheerleader when one of those friends needed her support. “They relied on her as much as she relied on them to keep each other pumped up and focused,” said Bill.
Meryl was less than halfway through Barry’s OT program when she received her cancer diagnosis, but she was committed to earning her degree, incorporating her medical treatments and appointments into her active schedule. When her 2017 surgery required her to take a break, her classmates collaborated on a video message that encouraged her recovery. “Each one of them had a cameo,” said Bill. All wanted her back in class, and she was determined to get there. “She completed more than half her graduate work while she was fighting cancer,” said Joan. “It never stopped her.” One of her Barry mentors, OT Program Director Belkis Landa-Gonzalez, agreed, saying, “She remained dedicated, charged on, graduated, and walked down the commencement stage.” She also summoned the energy to participate in extracurricular initiatives. “Meryl was involved with several volunteer projects in the program, offering her talents and donating to children and those less fortunate,” said Dr. Landa-Gonzalez. Her persistence and positivity earned her a special distinction within Barry’s OT department: “Most Inspirational Student.”
Meryl lost her battle with cancer on July 5, 2019. Amid their grief, Bill and Joan considered the myriad ways in which they could honor their daughter’s memory. Meryl had expressed a deep desire to start a nonprofit that could provide relief for sufferers of head and neck cancer. In the latter stages of her life, her parents were committed to helping her carry out her mission, even designating the money awarded to Bill in recognition for his work with combat veterans to Meryl’s cause. Upon her death, Bill and Joan researched how they could impact the world as their daughter had intended. “We would take walks and talk about it,” Joan said. It was on one of these walks that Bill said, “Why don’t we just give that money to Barry?” To Joan, this was the perfect way to honor Meryl and the work and passion she devoted to becoming an occupational therapist. “The idea kept evolving,” she said. “One day I said, why don’t we make it bigger? Why do a one-time donation? Let’s extend Meryl’s legacy into the future.” They reached out to Barry and initiated a scholarship named for Meryl and the very distinction she received during her tenure with the OT department. With $1,000 per year over a 10-year period, The Meryl Barns Zigila Most Inspirational Student Award will support future OT students who exhibit the positivity, compassion, and strength of character Meryl embodied.
Both Bill and Joan describe Meryl as humble but confident, a person who was self-assured and present wherever she went in the world. Those places were many—Europe with friends, Asia with her family, the Grand Canyon with her church community. Shortly after her 2017 surgery, while undergoing chemotherapy, she traveled to Norway and Sweden with her husband, Brett. In her daily life, she sought opportunities to connect and explore, never allowing her life to fall into the kind of mundane pattern Dave Matthews Band warns us about. In all the cities she called home, Meryl found and immersed herself in a church community, lending her musical talents to church bands and Sunday-morning services. “She was a cradle Episcopalian,” said Bill. “I think her faith carried her through her short life. She knew she had that connection with the Lord and that was unshakeable. Her faith, her certitude of who she was and who loved her, allowed her to live each day and moment to its fullest.”
Her marriage to Brett was equally fulfilling. Alongside him, she took up paddle-boarding, quickly mastered it, and moved on to new activities. The couple also adopted a dog, Modus, named for a Colorado-brewed IPA they enjoyed called “Modus Hoperandi.” Meryl had recently endured an invasive surgery and felt an immediate kinship with Modus, who had suffered an attack by other dogs. She told her parents, “I picked him because he was wounded, like me.” Using the same equipment she used to treat her own scars, she rehabilitated Modus and began faithfully walking him at 6:30 each morning.
This selfless but practical attitude characterized much of Meryl’s response to her cancer diagnosis. It was her nature to consider others, and she did so with a therapist’s body of knowledge. Her own experience motivated her to think about her OT practice and experiment with her newly learned techniques, hoping she could advance her care of future patients. “She was the one who thought, I need a board to write messages,” said Joan. Even before it was prescribed, “she started doing physical therapy on her own.”
As much as they admire their daughter’s upbeat and determined “therapist’s mindset,” Bill and Joan find great significance in their memories of Meryl’s gracious acceptance of therapeutic support. With her family, she painted during art therapy and stroked the dogs who visited the hospital for pet therapy. She also delighted in the very therapeutic gifts she spent her life giving to others. “What inspired me the most was being able to see Meryl receive music therapy and occupational therapy,” said Bill. He witnessed these moments often but recalls with particular fondness the day a protégé of Meryl’s, a woman she had mentored in music therapy, arrived in her hospital room. “She played three lovely songs for Meryl, and I was able to sit back and see what it was like for her to receive what she had given so freely to others,” said Bill. “It was precious to know that the two of them had had that relationship together, that Meryl had provided her inspiration and guidance on how to be a music therapist.” Her OT sessions were equally meaningful for Meryl. “It gave her joy, and it was life-giving to watch that,” said Bill.
Together, the Barns hope the scholarship they’ve established in their daughter’s name will honor her memory by helping future OT graduate students and their patients. “To go to graduate school is a huge feat, and lots of people have obstacle that we’re not even aware of,” said Joan. Lessening the financial burden associated with such necessities as certification, uniforms, and work sacrificed during internship phases, is a primary goal for Bill and Joan. “We have no doubt that were led by the Holy Spirit,” said Joan. Validation of this fact comes in small, surprising moments. “Every time we would talk about the scholarship, a phrase from the Eucharistic Liturgy would come to mind: It is right, and a good and joyful thing.” One day, while speaking to a friend about their intent to establish the award, the friend said, “That sounds like a right and good and joyful thing!” “That was like an affirmation,” said Joan. “It gave us joy, it gives us joy, and it will continue to give us joy.
The inaugural Meryl Barns Zigila Most Inspirational Student Award will be presented on December 13, 2020.