Disclaimer: some names have been changed to protect privacy.
Liz and her friend were driving home from an afternoon of shopping at St. Vital Centre in Winnipeg. It was just after dusk on Nov. 12, 1983. Their seatbelts hung loosely beside them unfastened. Liz, a novice driver, tapped the brakes to check the winter road conditions. It seemed safe.
Suddenly, it became icy beneath them, and the car began to fishtail. Liz struggled to regain control. An oncoming vehicle hit the passenger side of the car. The force of the blow threw the driver’s side door open, and Liz flew from the vehicle, her skull striking the pavement.
An ambulance rushed the two young girls to the hospital. The passenger escaped the accident with a broken arm and pelvis, but 17-year-old Liz lost so much more.
While thinking about what happened to my Aunty Liz, I watch my gangly legs carry me where I want them to — an act I assume most people take for granted. I touch my thigh to make sure it’s really there. ‘Yep, I’m lucky,’ I think.
I enter the mezzanine of Liz’s apartment and search for her last name on the list of tenants. A young man leaves the building. I grab the door before it closes and hurry through.
I take the elevator up to Liz’s apartment. Later, Liz tells me that she’s been trapped in her apartment for days when the elevator breaks down.
I knock on her door, and it slowly glides open. Liz has one hand pressing the lever on her wheelchair, and the other pulling at the door.
Boxes of snacks and cereal litter her countertops. Old photos and paintings of landscapes dangle from the wall.
Some of the photos are from Liz’s life before the wheelchair: a time, she likes to remember.
She, and other members of my family, explained that story to me:
The First Crash
Upon hearing news of the accident, Liz’s parents rushed to the hospital, a place that would become all too familiar to her family. Once they saw her, they began to realize how serious the situation really was.
Two weeks after being named valedictorian of her graduating class, Liz’s accident left her severely brain-injured.
She was in a coma, and no one knew if she would survive, and if she did, what the outcome would be.
In the months that followed, one of Liz’s family members drove an hour from their farm in St-Pierre-Jolys to St. Boniface Hospital every day to be by her side.
“It was a very, very difficult time and everybody dealt with it in their own way,” said my mom, and Liz’s eldest sister, Diane.
Though the family was dealing with a devastating situation, they owned a dairy farm, so the work didn’t stop for their parents. Liz’s five siblings relied more on each other since their parents were either working or at the hospital. “It changed everything overnight,” said Diane.
Liz began showing signs of life after almost 90 days.
Diane says this was a huge relief for the family.
“It was an uplifting period for us when Liz started regaining consciousness, it meant there was at least a possibility of progress.”
At first, Liz could only respond to questions by lifting a finger or slightly nodding her head. The challenges that Liz and her family would be facing became clear once she regained her ability to speak.
Liz would lash out unexpectedly, whipping her body and yelling because she didn’t know how to handle her emotions and life. She struggled to accept that she had lost the ability to walk and the freedoms that came with it.
Diane assumes Liz felt a great sense of loss in her life beyond her physical changes. She lost her friends, her sense of self-identity, and dreams of what she thought her life was going to be.
She “became a different person,” as a result of her injury, said Diane.
Liz’s life was consumed by the medical rehab machine. From occupational therapy to speech therapy, she relearned how to exist in her body.
Before discharging Liz from the hospital, her team of doctors, nurses and counsellors met to discuss her future.
Reducing Liz to her diagnosis, 13 professionals explained to Liz and the family all of the things that she wouldn’t be able to do in life. During the meeting, Diane turned to Liz and said, “Nobody here can determine your future, and this is all opinion.” Diane says she said it loud enough for the rest of the room to hear.
“That meeting wasn’t even about my life, it was about her life, and I found it so unbelievably disheartening,” said Diane. “It was a super limiting experience, and it was pretty devastating for Liz at the time.”
After an exhausting nine months for Liz and her family in the hospital, they went home.
Another Devastating Crash
Following the accident, the family found some normalcy again. Their father made the house wheelchair accessible, and Liz’s new way of life slowly became habitual.
The family started doing the things they loved again, like eating dinner together and baking shortbread cookies.
On Dec. 5, 1986, not long after the family found their new rhythm — they received a disturbing phone call that would shake things up again. There had been another crash.
Liz’s older brother Charles and a co-worker were driving home from a 50-day stint working on the oil rigs. Following a period of freezing rain, the road turned to ice. His co-worker lost control of the vehicle with Charles in the passenger seat. The truck rolled, leaving both the driver and Charles unconscious. They weren’t wearing seatbelts.
Diane and her mother flew out to be with Charles at an Edmonton hospital as soon as they could.
The driver was discharged after a couple of days with a few broken bones. But Charles was severely brain injured and remained in a coma for a month. Diane stayed in Edmonton for a week, but their mother didn’t leave Charles’ bedside during his hospital stay.
“Charles was labeled as the ‘walking wounded.’ He looks like a capable guy, but his cognitive abilities to plan, self-assess, and take control of his life are hugely diminished,” said Diane.
Charles stayed in the hospital for three months — six months less than Liz.
“I realized right away that [brain injuries] are so vastly different person to person,” said Liz. “I could not necessarily relate to anything he was going through because they’re so different.”
Though his injury was slightly less severe than Liz’s, it greatly changed how his life unfolded.
Diane Creates Change
After the accident, Charles lived at his parents’ house for a year, then moved in with his sister Diane for a few months.
Diane learnt a lot while helping her younger siblings navigate their injuries.
“I saw firsthand how the healthcare system wasn’t able to effectively deal with people with brain injuries,” said Diane. “They were very good at occupational therapy, helping them learn to eat. But helping them cope with life was not even addressed.”
Diane started the Manitoba Head Injury Association, now called the Manitoba Brain Injury Association (MBIA), five years after Liz’s injury. The association provides support and promotes services for people with brain injuries and their families.
The MBIA held biweekly gatherings that connected brain injured individuals. These gatherings often had 10 to 15 people show up, with Liz and Charles going when they could.
Diane’s experience with her siblings’ brain injuries, combined with the skills learned through her career as a social worker, helped her build the association.
Between working, her position at the MBIA, and helping Liz and Charles as much as she could, her life became dedicated to supporting people with disabilities.
Diane says trying to fill all of these roles while raising her two-year-old daughter and pregnant with her second child was nearly impossible.
It became very “all-consuming,” said Diane. “I was too heavily invested in making change happen when the medical and social systems in place didn’t see it as their problem. It was exhausting.”
After 10 years with the MBIA, she quit.
Today, Diane doesn’t work with people with brain injuries, but the organization still exists.
Charles’ New Reality
About a year and a half after his accident, Charles moved back to Alberta. He worked as a labourer on an oil rig, just as he had before his injury, only more sporadically.
After a few years, he got a mining job near Yellowknife, but Charles’ injury slowed down his ability to work.
“It’s not that he’s lazy; it’s rather that he cannot process the steps necessary to get going,” said Veronica, Charles’ younger sister.
Charles says that brain injury feels like you’re a goldfish that’s moved to a smaller tank, “You’re in a smaller aquarium, but everything you see on the outside is still the same.”
Charles lived and worked at the mine for a year, and the long hours and exhausting work took a toll on him.
Out of work and money, he moved in with Veronica’s family of six.
Veronica was encouraging Charles to get social assistance during his stay, but he was opposed to it. “He’s a very proud person, and he doesn’t want handouts,” said Veronica.
After three months, Veronica and her husband decided that Charles needed to move out. “It was a lot of stress, and it was hard because Charles was not in good shape,” said Veronica.
With nowhere to go, Charles wound up living on the street. For three months, he spent his days in line at a Calgary soup kitchen and his nights figuring out which shelter to sleep at next.
Veronica says this period helped him become open to the idea of being on assistance.
The funds allowed him to rent a room in a house near Veronica. Not long after, Charles’ parents bought him a place in Andrew, a town of 425 people an hour and a half outside Edmonton.
Charles’ parents hoped he would fix up the house, but that didn’t happen. His home currently has no running water, internet or TV, and has ceiling high towers of things he has accumulated over the years. Because of the lack of running water in his house, he showers at a nearby gym.
Veronica said she’s tried to help Charles fix his house or organize his things countless times, but he tells her he wants to do it himself.
Veronica recalls Charles telling her about his day. He wakes up by 10 or 11, smokes for an hour, and showers at the gym. Then he spends three hours socializing over lunch at the local café. He goes grocery shopping, buys a pack of smokes, and heads home.
The people in Andrew take care of him. If he runs out of money for the month, his friends at the café give him food and let Charles pay them back when he can.
“He always seems to find great people,” said Veronica.
When I was growing up, after his accident, Charles often came to my house in Manitoba for Christmas. When I think of those times, I see him standing quietly in the kitchen with a soft smile on his face. That’s a good word to describe him: soft.
“Charles is very calm and pleasant,” said Veronica. “He wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
In the summer, Charles lives in Andrew. But he rents a room near Veronica in Edmonton in the winter because the furnace in his house doesn’t work.
When Charles is nearby, Veronica visits him weekly, often chatting with him at one of his favourite cafés over lunch.
“Life’s pretty decent,” said Charles in his gruff but friendly tone.
Liz’s New Life
After her time in the hospital, Liz lived at home for a few years, relying heavily on her parents for support. With the help of an educational assistant, she was able to graduate from high school.
Liz had a tough time controlling her emotions. “It’s not uncommon for people with brain injuries, even mild and moderate, never mind severe brain injuries, to lose some control over their emotional reactions,” said Diane.
For the first several years, Liz would get upset recalling her life before her accident. She says things were especially difficult because she didn’t just have a brain injury: she also had a wheelchair. It took her about 10 years to manage those outbursts and emotions.
Liz met Drew, another brain-injured person, at an MBIA gathering. Shortly after meeting, they began filling their days with each other’s company.
Liz says that meeting Drew was the best thing that has happened to her. “He really was a saint that was heavenly. He brought company and companionship plus he was an excellent cook,” said Liz, proudly.
Drew was in school to become a doctor before his injury. He, too, had to drastically change the expectations he had for his life.
Though Diane says Drew’s injury didn’t significantly affect his motor skills, it deeply affected his ability to manage his life.
After a few months of dating, Liz became pregnant.
Liz and Drew got married in a small ceremony then moved into an apartment in Osborne Village. They lived there until Liz gave birth to their baby girl LeeAnne.
Being a new mother was “unbelievable,” said Liz.
Liz and Drew were caring for their delicate newborn with the help of 24-hour home care workers. “She was a beautiful baby,” said Liz, affectionately while showing me a photo of LeeAnne.
A few weeks after LeeAnne arrived, Drew’s sister Carol visited the couple. To her surprise, there were no home care workers on duty.
Concerned for the newborn’s wellbeing, Carol called Child and Family Services (CFS) and told them she was taking LeeAnne home with her.
Carol fought with Liz’s family and CFS to make sure the baby was in the hands of someone that was fully capable of caring for her.
Carol soon decided that the best thing for the baby would be for her and her husband to adopt her. But LeeAnne says that Drew and Liz wouldn’t relinquish their parental rights.
Against Drew and Liz’s will, Carol ended up getting permanent guardianship of LeeAnne and raising her alongside her two children.
“It was so hard,” said Liz.
Both Liz and Drew’s parents didn’t approve of their marriage and believed that their child should be married to people who weren’t disabled. People that were better equipped to care for them.
The family pressure and stress of having LeeAnne was overwhelming. A few months after they were married Liz and Drew split.
Liz and Drew saw LeeAnne at least once a week until she was 15. From that point until she turned 18, she says she visited her mom every second weekend and saw her dad at family gatherings.
LeeAnne says growing up with two sets of parents was challenging.
“I was very confused because it wasn’t always explained,” said LeeAnne. “I have my mom and dad that I live with, and I call them mom and dad, but Liz and Drew both chose that I call them mom and dad too.”
While LeeAnne was growing up, Liz was still working on managing her emotions.
Liz would have abrupt outbursts over simple things. “It went from zero to 60 in two seconds, it was calm or not calm, there was no in-between,” said LeeAnne, recalling Liz’s frustrated reactions.
Although Liz wants to see her daughter more, LeeAnne has built a life for herself in Selkirk, Manitoba, so the two don’t often cross paths. Liz didn’t expect their relationship to be this way.
“I thought to myself as she gets older and matures, she’ll start looking for her mom. It just didn’t happen that way,” said Liz.
Liz says she loves spending time out and about when the weather allows it. Most people in her neighborhood would recognize her wheelchair scooting down the sidewalk. “In spring, summer, fall, I go out all day, every day. I only use this place to sleep,” she said, laughing.
Liz’s older sister Lesly loves that Liz spends time in the community, but she often questions her safety.
“Liz has run [her wheelchair’s] battery dry at least 50 times, and this has happened when it’s -40 C in the winter,” said Lesly. “In the summer, I have met people who have pushed her from Assiniboine Park to her apartment in Osborne.”
During the winter, Liz says she barely leaves the house. Her days mostly consist of “TV, TV, and more TV.”
Liz says her electric wheelchair often gets stuck while crossing the snowy streets. When she gets into these situations, she says she relies on kind-hearted Winnipeggers to help her out.
The effects of Liz’s injury can make even life’s simple tasks overwhelming. “I know her life is so hard right now, not because she complains, she doesn’t, but it takes her an hour and a half to get dressed on her own,” said Lesly.
Liz herself doesn’t have many complaints but she also realizes some things are harder to do.
“The most inconvenient thing is going to the bathroom because it’s so involved. You have to stand up, sit down, and stand up again,” said Liz. “It’s a real drag.”
Liz goes shopping herself instead of getting groceries delivered to feel like something is normal in her life.
It takes her the whole day. She’s “looking for a conversation instead of looking for Corn Flakes,” said Lesly.
Liz realizes that mindset is everything when it comes to having a disability.
“It’s all in how a person deals with it,” said Liz, as a smirk grows across her face. “If you’ve got a good outlook on life then it’s a breeze.”
I Was Wrong
Back in Liz’s apartment, Liz pushes the lever beneath her hand forward, guiding me to the shelf stacked with photo albums. I flip through the pages as she watches beside me.
“Is that you?” I ask, pointing at a teenage girl in a team photo.
“Yes,” said Liz. “You really didn’t know I was a figure skating coach?”
I shook my head.
Before interviewing my aunt and uncle for this article, I’ll admit I saw people with disabilities through a lens of what they couldn’t do. That lens made me see them as less capable of love, companionship, and real feelings. Less human.
Liz says that “It feels like society looks down on disabled people.”
I was subconsciously feeding this problem.
While I sit across from my aunty Liz in her tiny apartment and listen to her describe the world and her experiences within it, I realize how wrong I was.
I didn’t see her for who she was beyond her disability. Maybe I’ve been conditioned to think this way by society’s fear of imperfection, or maybe it’s just me. But I’m grateful that I know what I do now.