Jess Buick, Contributor Ω
She rolled around campus in a green wheelchair with an unwavering and infectious smile on her face — brave, independent, beautiful. Her name was Grace Hall. She began attending TRU in September 2010, three years after she had graduated high school in 2007 and was proud to be a member of the fine arts program.
The opportunity to experience four years of university education is something many students often take for granted. The early morning classes, the endless hours of studying in the library and the chaotic new lifestyle that is never found in public schools, these are things most don’t appreciate. We don’t often take a step back and appreciate how lucky and privileged we are to be here. For Grace, attending TRU was her proudest moment — and she was only here for six weeks.
“She really had everyone’s attention because she responded to every single question that the teacher asked with pretty unique and inspirational answers,” said Sissi Chen, one of Grace’s first friends at the school. The two met in Grace’s 2D art foundations class. “I just couldn’t help paying attention to her. I wondered where she came up with these strange but absolutely smart ideas about art.”
Grace always had the most wonderful and quirky sense of humour. She was an observer of people and had a passion for drawing cartoons based on the smallest attention to detail that most would not notice.
“We really felt she was going somewhere with her art,” her mother Heather Gordon-Hall said.
According to friends and family, Grace both loved her art and was very talented. Not only did she draw hilarious cartoons, she also made short videos and even a longer mockumentary poking fun at her old high school and how “accessible” it was to those who were handicapped.
The reason for Grace’s long awaited arrival at university was due to her on-going struggle with health problems.
“We started noticing signs of weakness when she was in grade six,” her mother said. “She was on crutches by grade nine and in grade ten was in a wheelchair and used that mainly to get around.”
Grace had a mountain to climb during the years between high school graduation and her eventual arrival at TRU. She was constantly fighting a battle with her own body, but she gladly tackled that summit, never complaining or feeling sorry for herself — just constantly trying to conquer her ferocious uphill battle, as if she could see the peak but it was always just slightly out of her grasp. She worked so hard to reach the top and in September 2010 all the hard work paid off and she was able to come to Kamloops. Her father, Trafford Hall, also took a job in Vernon, B.C. so he could be close to his daughter and watch over her if she ever needed help.
“We finally felt that she was stable enough to be on her own,” her mother said. “It was really important to her to go to school. She wanted her independence.”
Grace grew up in the small town of Kitimat, B.C. and had a close relationship with her parents Trafford and Heather, her younger brother River and her two older sisters Etta and Annie.
“She was the glue that held our family together,” her mother said.
She felt trapped there after high school, however, as she watched as many of her friends got to leave and start new lives and post-secondary education.
Those years after high school weren’t all negative, though, as she continued her education from home — doing a course in graphic design — and passing down her talents by teaching young children cartooning at Riverlodge, a recreation centre in Kitimat.
Despite her many medical complications, her mother said it never occurred to her that she would someday not be around.
“It never dawned on me that I would lose her.”
On Oct. 12, 2010, following a severe migraine, Grace fell into a coma and was admitted to the intensive care unit at Royal Inland Hospital, six weeks after she had started her school year — the school year she had fought so hard to finally get to.
“She had this bizarre genetic mutation, it’s like her chemistry was breaking down,” her mother said.
After about two months, Grace woke up and started rehabilitation, but began having seizures because of brain damage.
“Her MRI showed lots of brain damage,” said Dr. Gabriela Horvath, Grace’s long-time doctor.
Just like that she was pushed off the mountaintop and had to start fighting upwards all over again.
“In December I was finally allowed to see Grace,” Chen remembered. “During her time in the hospital, every time she saw me she felt she was still connected to the school, she was still part of the school life.”
Dr. Horvath, remembers when she first met Grace.
“The reason for me to start seeing her when she was 15 was because she had a low level of serotonin in her spinal fluid,” Dr. Horvath said. “Her disease is unique. Nobody has ever described it in the medical literature, it involves a genetic defect that controls many genes — how they get expressed and function in the body.”
After a long struggle with rehabilitation, Grace was finally released from Royal Inland Hospital and returned to Kitimat in March 2011.
“She was so upset she lost her school year,” her mother said. “We were always so optimistic that she would return after she recovered.”
But it was not to be. Grace returned home where her mother and sister Annie — with the help of some home-care nurses — took care of her, but only ten days later, she was admitted back into the hospital in Kitimat and another ten days after that she was flown to Vancouver General.
After being stabilized, Grace was admitted into G.F. Strong, a rehabilitation centre in Vancouver. She spent a few months there, but in September 2011, her mother and father were informed that she would be discharged because she was no longer in the process of recovery. At this point she had lost her use of speech and was getting weaker in her limbs.
“She was frustrated, I could see it,” her brother said. “But she was still happy and we could tell what she wanted by her other expressions.”
Grace had her last birthday on Oct. 24, 2011. She was so happy blowing out her candles. She had so much to be angry about, but there she was sitting in her wheelchair, with the same smile on her face she wore around campus when she first arrived.
Grace was back in the hospital in December, and on Jan. 31, 2012 she passed away in Kitimat General Hospital surrounded by her family.
“I had a dream about her after she died and she was sitting and smiling and she had a small piece of paper in her hands. Unfortunately I woke up before she gave it to me,” Dr. Horvath said. “It was like she could’ve told me what was wrong with her.”
Grace fought so hard for the bulk of her life. She fought to be better; she fought for independence, fought for a full life that most of us don’t have to work for. She was courageous.
“If I was half the person Grace was I’d be really happy with myself,” her brother said.
Grace’s funeral took place Feb. 4, 2012. The church was more than full; hundreds of people came and stood amongst a crowd to pay their respects to this intelligent, gorgeous girl. Chen was there. She came to Kitimat from Kamloops and dressed her friend for the funeral, a task most couldn’t do.
“I wasn’t sure if I could control my emotion when I saw Grace. I wasn’t sure if I could take on this responsibility and do a good job.” Chen said. “But the moment I saw Grace, I calmed down. Grace was lying there; she looked so beautiful as always. It was like she was sleeping and she could wake up at any second and say my name again.”
It’s been almost a year since Grace’s passing; a whole year that the rest of us have been lucky enough to enjoy on the campus of TRU. Maybe when we have complaints about late nights or homework, we should think better of it.
“The minute you think of giving up, think of the reason why you hold on so long to get here.”
This was Grace and Chen’s favourite motto.
Grace battled for so long and still had the attitude of never giving up. She affected the lives of those around her in an impossibly positive way. She made people feel more confident, special and loved.
All Grace ever wanted was to go to school — a gift we are all so fortunate to have. I try to remember that every time I start complaining about an early-morning class or a pop quiz I wasn’t ready for.
I remember Grace Hall.