Celebration of Life Honors Brooke Ellison’s Inspiring Legacy

“One of the biggest gifts I have been given is my ability to share my life with people,” Brooke Ellison wrote in her book Look Both Ways.

It was apparent from the Brooke Ellison Celebration of Life on March 24 that she did indeed succeed in sharing her life with many, enriching the lives of those who knew her as well of those who knew of her. Ellison’s family, friends and colleagues packed the Sidney Gelber Auditorium in the Student Activities Center for the celebration. Ellison died February 4 from complications of quadriplegia at the age of 45.

Ellison was hit by a car in 1990 while crossing Nicolls Road in Stony Brook when walking home from her first day of junior high school at 11 years old. The accident fractured her skull and her spine, broke nearly every bone in her body, and left her paralyzed from the neck down.

As a result of her injuries, for the rest of her life she was dependent on a wheelchair operated by a tongue-touch keypad, a respirator and a voice-activated computer for writing.

And while Ellison acknowledged the challenges and limitations of living with quadriplegia, she was undeterred by her condition, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor of science in cognitive neuroscience, one of the first quadriplegics ever to do so. She later earned a master’s in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and received her PhD in sociology from Stony Brook in 2012, joining the university faculty that same year.

She was an associate professor in the Department of Health Sciences in the School of Health Professions as well as a research assistant professor in the Renaissance School of Medicine, and former director of the Center for Community Engagement and Leadership Development, which fosters research partnerships between the university and community-based organizations and groups throughout Suffolk County. 


Ellison was a staunch advocate for disability rights and stem cell research andwas presented with the Inspiration Award at the 2008 World Stem Cell Summit. She held numerous appointments, including the New York State Spinal Cord Injury Research Board; the Ethics Committee of the Empire State Stem Cell Research Board; Board of Directors and Executive Committee of the New York Civil Liberties Union; Truman National Security Project Political Partner; World Economic Forum Young Global Leader; and commissioner on the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission. 

The three-hour celebration included tributes from friends and family, readings from her book, and anecdotes that revealed how she touched the lives of so many, and found joy in each day.

Friend and “sidekick” Michael Rodriguez recalled how much fun he had with Ellison, planning beer tasting parties (with Brooke telling him he should bring the beer) and unsuccessfully adopting a pet monkey for her. He detailed a time where they plotted to get matching tattoos. While he thought that Ellison’s mother, Jean, would put an end to the plans, they succeeded, and months later, sat across from each other in the tattoo parlor while getting those tattoos — matching anchor and wings, as Ellison was, and is, the anchor to Michael’s wings. 

Rodriguez said what was most remarkable about Ellison was that she let nothing stand in her way. “Every barrier she faced she smashed, and every time she was told she couldn’t do something she excelled.”

Each of Ellison’s successes is also a testament to the dedication of her mother, Jean, who took her place beside and behind Brooke to support her through her educational and career goals, putting aside her own career as a special education teacher. Ellison’s father Ed Ellison described his wife’s daily routine to assist Brooke.

Reed Ellison, Brooke’s brother, was one of many family and friends who spoke at the event.

“All of you here know that we could not celebrate Brooke’s life without a significant reference to her mother Jean,” he said, adding that the two were a dynamic, inseparable duo — almost one person. “Jean would get up at 3:45 am each morning, throw on an apron and go to work getting Brooke ready for the day. She never complained. And Brooke’s admiration and gratitude to her mother was palpable. They were mother and daughter, coworkers, best friends and they both loved life because they knew how fragile it was when they almost lost each other 33 years ago.”

Ellison recognized and appreciated the support, and in a letter to her mother, read by Ed Ellison, told her: “I can say that I wouldn’t be here where I am without you but that’s obvious and insufficient. The fact of the matter is that I wouldn’t want to be where I am without you. The road has been difficult, yet often thrilling and certain sweet and it’s been an unimaginable gift to travel with you.”

Actor Christopher Reeve, also paralyzed after an accident, reached out to Ellison after her story caught his attention. They shared many conversations, and he directed a 2004 television movie based on her life called The Brooke Ellison Story.

Cinematographer Todd Leatherman shared a short film of Ellison, and her words in the film seemed to speak to her friends and family in the audience. 

“There’s a theme of the human spirit and how it’s made that much stronger, and that much more resilient by one another. If you leave here tonight, with nothing else, I hope you’ll leave here with that message. Because in order for miracles to happen, great people must help to make them happen.”

Brooke Ellison Legacy Scholarship has been set up in her memory. 

— Beth Squire

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