"I'm not just surviving; I'm thriving"
Ten years ago, on the way to a Reading Week sailing regatta in Florida, five Queen’s students were involved in a car crash just outside Savannah, Georgia. Two were killed immediately, while two suffered relatively minor injuries. The fifth – Melissa Vassallo, Artsci’02 – was left hanging between life and death.
Wearing a seat belt saved her, but the internal damage caused by the restraint was devastating. She suffered 82 injuries, including more than 50 broken bones, a fractured spine, collapsed lungs, extensive damage to her internal organs, and severe cardiac trauma. Having endured more than 50 operations in the intervening years, the process of recovery has been a long, hard battle for Melissa – but this proud alumna is nothing if not a fighter.
“I think it’s important to emphasize that, despite chronic pain and fatigue, I’m not just surviving, but thriving as a woman with disabilities,” Melissa explains. “I live on my own, I own a home, and I plan to complete my Master’s degree in Disability Studies in June. I make a difference through the work I do, through my advocacy, and through my philanthropic work. It all drives me forward.”
During her time in hospital following the accident and for years afterwards, she was visited by several Queen’s staff members, including Bob Silverman, then Dean of Arts and Science, and Sue Blake, director of student services for the Faculty of Arts and Science, who provided comfort and support. She was granted exemption from her final year of study but, unfortunately, was unable to attend her Convocation ceremony. However, when her brother, Michael, completed his BA in 2006, she was invited to his Convocation to be capped and gowned alongside him.
“I’m still so grateful to Queen’s for the support I was given throughout my healing journey,” she says. In fact, she was inspired to share her story with fellow alumni in support of the central message of Queen’s Initiative Campaign, launched last fall.
“The campaign is all about investing in a special place that unleashes the potential of Queen’s thinkers and doers, people who care, and who don’t waver in their pursuit of excellence,” she says. “I’m one of those people. My goal is to remove barriers and bringing accessibility to people with disabilities across Canada.”
Since recovering sufficiently to tackle about six hours of work a day, Melissa has set herself to the task of achieving her goals. Through her affiliations as a volunteer with the Canadian Federation of University Women, she founded a scholarship in 2010 that gives $1,000 a year for up to five years to a woman with disabilities attending university or a woman studying disability issues.
A resident of Oakville, ON, Melissa was an integral part of Rick Hanson’s 2010 Wheels in Motion Day at Appleby College and helped to raise more than $45,000 in her position as co-chair. She was involved with the city’s first Accessibility Sailing Program, has been the chair of Oakville’s Accessibility Advisory Committee, and was a director at its accessible boating company, CharterAbility, from 2008 to 2010, during which time the organization was able to make use of a fueled pontoon boat on loan from Melissa.
During 2012, she had the opportunity to share her story and her message with Oprah Winfrey; with Princess Sophie, Countess of Wessex; and with the hundreds of attendees at the Oakville Company of Women’s “Journey to Success” conference. Together with David Onley, Ontario’s first Lieutenant Governor with a disability, she started a housing project for disabled adults across Canada – a project that has been the inspiration for her master’s thesis. Earlier this year, she was awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in recognition of her achievements so far.
And she won’t stop there. Melissa Vassallo is full of ideas for her next initiatives, including a rehabilitation retreat centre for young women and a business designing unique prosthetic limbs and accessories. “Queen’s is so much more to me than just an alma mater,” she says. “My years at Queen’s profoundly shaped the woman I am today.”
Find out more about Melissa’s work at melissavassallo.ca.