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Turning Personal Tragedy into Advocacy

Meeting Ellie today, it's difficult to comprehend the tragedy she endured two years ago. The 20-year-old Kelowna woman is smiley, witty, energetic, ambitious and social.

Best known for her constant and infectious smile, Leanna "Ellie" is a walking miracle, according to the doctors who first cared for her following an horrific car crash two years ago. Now she wants to shake up the system and help others with brain injuries.

Seven months pregnant at the time of the crash, Ellie lost the baby, sustained significant physical damage and a brain injury.

Nicknamed Ellie because her initials are L.E., she is enrolled at Okanagan College taking adult basic education. She started on May 2 with a Grade 10 English course and will continue until she has all of her high school classes under her belt.

After that, her plan is to venture down the path of Political Science.

"I want to advocate for brain injury and earn some political influence to possibly develop road ways to change the system.

"People need to open their eyes and see that each individual has potential and the ability to express love in some way, which is what we as humans value most."

She says more awareness and education around brain injury would be helpful. Because each person is different, each brain injury is completely different. Therefore, each brain injury needs to be treated as unique, not categorized and streamlined.

She equates brain injury to cooking, asking you to imagine following a recipe to make a pizza. You know you should mix yeast and warm water, combine dry ingredients, mix the dry ingredients with the yeast and water, knead the dough, let it rise, preheat the oven, spread the dough thinly onto pans, put on your toppings and bake.

Brain injury is like taking all of those steps and putting them in a blender. The brain might recognize and remember some of those steps, but the order of events and the logic behind the order is confused.

Ellie lived at CONNECT Lake Country for just over a year and a half before transitioning back into the home she shares with her husband, Luigi.

"CONNECT is basically like a family. Just having a personal relationship with everyone and all of my professionals made a big difference. People are complicated and if you want to recognize the fundamentals of a person's recovery, you have to get to know them and what makes them tick," she says.

The staff at CONNECT often talks about Ellie and the incredible impact she made on other residents, the amount of improvement they witnessed in her level of ability, and her wicked wit. She resided there from September 22, 2011 to Feb 22, 2013.

Karen Tims, one of CONNECT's key leaders, says Ellie, with CONNECT and the help of an invaluable counsellor she was working with, gradually found her place at CONNECT and became involved in things.

"The first meeting we had with Ellie, she was in a wheelchair and a lot of people thought she'd be in that chair forever," says Tims. "Three months later, she walked into the meeting and her family stood and cheered."

Ellie says the hardest part of her brain injury journey has been accepting that she doesn't always know what's best for her.

"When you're doing something and you get a friendly nudge from a front-line worker suggesting, 'maybe you want to mix those two ingredients, not those,' and you see you've been making a mistake, it's very difficult to accept that there is a disconnect."

Mark Fleming, CONNECT play coach, and Damien Leitner, life skills coach, attended Ellie's guest speaking presentation at UBC when she was invited to speak to a neuropsychology class.

Fleming, who says Ellie's shift in attitude during her time at CONNECT was remarkable, recalls the openness, honesty and bravery with which she spoke.

"She was very fearful when she came to us. Even walking was scary to her because she was afraid of falling and not being able to get up. To see her go from that to this confident, well-spoken, insightful woman, particularly when she spoke at UBC, was incredible. I don't know a lot of people who would have been able to do that."

Leitner recalls Ellie's political discussions with staff and residents, her sense of humour and her incredible presence.

Tims says Ellie became a personality for staff and residents, helped others, developed relationships, and was a very loving, caring, sensitive presence at CONNECT.

"Ellie would call me and ask me to go for ice cream and it wouldn't be because she wanted ice cream, it would be because she knew I needed a break. She is just so aware and giving."

Tims says for all the tragedy and loss in Ellie's life, her future may be different and, possibly, bigger than she ever would have imagined.

Ellie's most memorable moment at CONNECT was a birthday party the staff threw for her 20th Birthday. More than 25 people helped her celebrate.

While she says moving home felt long overdue, it wasn't necessarily easy redeveloping the dynamics of the relationship with her husband and easing herself back into her own routine.

"I am finding there are not enough hours in the day. I have a lot on my plate and everything takes me two or three times longer than it did before the accident. My hands are weaker and my mobility is still shaky."

Between classes, her home life, meeting with doctors and a rehab assistant twice per week, Ellie said she manages to fit in the occasional game of SCRABBLE with her mother-in-law and tries not to take too much on.

"I know how far I've come but I also see how far I still have to go. It can be pretty overwhelming but I take it one day at a time and try to be positive in the meantime."