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Pioneering quadriplegic encourages students to overcome obstacles

Rosalee Dorsa, 22, right, speaks with Brooke Ellison

Rosalee Dorsa, 22, right, speaks with Brooke Ellison at the Mathnasium in Oakdale on Saturday. Credit: Daniel Goodrich

Brooke Ellison became a quadriplegic at the age of 11 when a car hit her while she was crossing Nicolls Road on her way home from seventh-grade orientation.

But Ellison, who almost died, didn’t let the tragedy stop her. The Stony Brook resident went on to attend Harvard University, and in 2000 became the first quadriplegic to graduate from the storied university.

On Saturday, Ellison, 39, brought her story to a math tutoring center in Oakdale to try to encourage students that they, too, can overcome any obstacles — and that they should put their own problems in perspective.

People should “look at challenges in our lives and not let them take over our lives,” Ellison told a crowd of about 30 students, parents and workers at the Mathnasium on Sunrise Highway. “Times of difficulty make us stronger.”

The idea for the appearance came from Richard Alfano and his wife, Chris Carrion-Alfano, co-owners of the business. Carrion-Alfano has known the Ellison family for years, and drove Brooke’s mother, Jean Ellison, to Stony Brook University Hospital the day of the accident in 1990.

Alfano said he sees many students come into the center with excuses for not working hard, or simple laziness. He said he hoped Ellison’s appearance would help encourage and energize them.

“I’m hoping at least one student who comes in here says to themselves, ‘You know what? I have no excuses,’ ” Alfano said. “‘If she is able to accomplish all this, given the challenges that she faces, I am able to do it, too.’”

Ellison said that she was stunned when she was accepted to Harvard during her senior year at Ward Melville High School, and that “there were people who said I would not make it there. [But] it was among the most transformative and pivotal moments of my life.”

Harvard accommodated a handicapped-accessible dorm room for her, and her mother moved in with her to attend to many of her needs — everything from eating to brushing her teeth.

Ellison cannot move any limbs and needs a ventilator to help her breathe. She moves her wheelchair through a “sip-and-puff” technology in which the direction of the chair is dictated by the amount of pressure she applies to a straw. She operates a computer by touching with her tongue a pad that is placed on the roof of her mouth and connected by radio frequency to the computer mouse. She dictates whatever she wants to write through a software program.

At the end of her four years at Harvard, Ellison’s classmates voted for her to deliver one of the graduation speeches in Harvard Yard before 20,000 people. On Saturday, Alfano played a videotape of the speech for the crowd, leaving many in tears.

Ellison returned to the campus in 2002 and earned a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Eventually she earned a doctorate in sociology at Stony Brook University, where today she is an assistant professor in the School of Health Technology & Management.

She wrote an autobiography, “Miracles Happen,” which was turned into a TV movie directed by “Superman” actor Christopher Reeve, who also became a quadriplegic after falling off a horse in 1995.

The event Saturday left many in the audience in awe of Ellison. “It was good,” said Olivia Cummings, 8, of Bohemia. “She can do anything, even though she is hurt.”

Olivia Hirt, 13, of Oakdale, said Ellison’s message also resonated with her. “I have been bullied for many years and her message of hope and courage” inspired her to stand up for herself and others, Hirt said.

Ellison left the crowd with a parting thought. “Your ability to make a difference in the world is real,” she said. “We’re all much stronger than we believe ourselves to be.”

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