Brooke Ellison on the Harvard University campus on April 28, 2000. Ellison was...

Brooke Ellison on the Harvard University campus on April 28, 2000. Ellison was the first quadriplegic person to graduate from Harvard. Credit: Newsday/Jim Peppler

Funny and gregarious. Brilliant and big-hearted. Courageous and determined.

That is how friends and family described the late Brooke Ellison, a 45-year-old Stony Brook University bioethicist and stem cell research advocate, during an emotional celebration of life on Sunday. She died Feb. 4 in the university's hospital. 

Ellison’s inspiring story of personal and professional success after a childhood accident left her paralyzed captured national and worldwide attention. She was the first quadriplegic person to graduate from Harvard University.

When she was 11, Ellison was hit by a car while walking across Nicolls Road in Stony Brook on her way home from middle school. The accident left her paralyzed from the neck down.

The three-hour program at Stony Brook’s student center featured readings from Ellison’s memoir, personal tributes, music and videos. They recounted her happy childhood, the challenges she faced after her accident, her academic journey that included a doctorate and a run for public office.

Brooke’s sister, Kysten Ellison, recalled their days of sharing a bedroom and talking until all hours of the night about their plans. Brooke had originally wanted a career as a dancer.

Brooke Ellison's sister, Kysten Ellison, performs an ASL renditon of...

Brooke Ellison's sister, Kysten Ellison, performs an ASL renditon of "Imagine" at a memorial service for her sister at Stony Brook University on Sunday. Credit: Morgan Campbell

“Her contributions to the world were far greater,” Kysten Ellison said. “Brooke was a remarkable inspiration to so many.”

Reed Ellison, her brother, who described Brooke as his “best friend my whole life,” said they loved to share games of logic and Scrabble.

“I tried to make her proud of me,” he said.

Friends recounted stories of Brooke’s bubbly personality and her love of themed parties and 1980s music while photos of her flashing a large, happy smile projected on the wall behind them.

Brooke’s story captured the attention of actor Christopher Reeve, who was also paralyzed after an accident. They had many conversations and he directed a 2004 television movie based on her life called “The Brooke Ellison Story,”

Ellison used a battery-powered ventilator to breathe and a wheelchair controlled by a sip-and-puff mouth switch. Her mother, Jean, put aside a career as a special-education teacher and dedicated her life to helping Brooke throughout her academic career and beyond.

Brooke Ellison's family, from left: brother Reed Ellison, mother Jean...

Brooke Ellison's family, from left: brother Reed Ellison, mother Jean Ellison, father Ed Ellison, and sister Kysten Ellison participate in a sing-along at the memorial service. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Brooke’s father, Ed Ellison, said the two were a “dynamic, inseparable duo.”

“Brooke fought many, many battles in her life, some of which were being fought right up to the very end,” he said. “That was one of the things that made her life so inspiring. Thankfully, she didn’t have to fight those battles alone.”

Brooke Ellison finished her doctoral work in sociology at Stony Brook in 2012 and went on to be an associate professor in the School of Health Professions where she taught medical ethics, science ethics and health policy.

A Brooke Ellison Legacy Scholarship has been set up at Stony Brook.

Dr. William A. Wertheim, interim executive vice president for Stony Brook Medicine, said Ellison’s legacy will continue at Stony Brook with the scholarship.

“She meant so much to our faculty and students by the example of her life and her many talents as a colleague,” he said. “She inspired us with her tireless efforts as a national and international advocate for those with disabilities, for equity and opportunity, for her advocacy of research to help those with spinal cord injury, and for her humanity.”

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