Before the accident, Yvonne Nielsen, (57) was shy.
Since then, she’s more outspoken, has won national awards for her work and spurred on tangible changes to Terrace.
Born and raised in Terrace, Nielsen liked gymnastics and riding her bike. She was part of the photography club in high school and attended the University of British Columbia to study special education.
She was 24 when the accident happened. She caught a ride back to Terrace from Prince George after attending a meeting with two people from Kitimat. Nielsen was sitting in the back seat with her seatbelt on.
“Then the accident happened and I don’t know what happened, just what I’ve been told,” she said.
“It was a head-on car crash and the driver and the lady in the front seat were instantly killed. I was in the back seat of the car, and what happened to my brain is it went forward and then back, forward and back and that caused my severe brain injury.”
Nielsen was taken by ambulance to Burns Lake, then to the hospital in Prince George to wait for a room to be available in Vancouver.
The crash damaged most of her brain, and she had a spinal cord injury and a seatbelt burn. She suffered a stroke on her right side.
“Inside my brain I’m figuring out what’s going on but I couldn’t talk so my mom, she came to Prince George and then I was flown to Vancouver,” Nielsen said.
She had a long recovery ahead of her in the hospital. For four months, Nielsen worked with speech, physical and occupational therapists. She was in a body cast and suffered memory loss. Each morning nurses would ask her the same questions to gauge whether or not her brain was improving.
“They even asked me who the mayor of Vancouver was, at that time I knew who the mayor was, I don’t remember now but I don’t know why they asked me that, I’m not from Vancouver,” she said.
Eventually Nielsen was able to transition from a wheelchair to walking with canes. She took it day by day in the hospital and there was no timeline for when she would be able to return to Terrace.
“A few times with the canes I guess I just left the ward and I come back and I got heck because I was supposed to tell them I was going out,” she said and laughed.
Finally she was well enough to return to Terrace, but she still had a body brace.
“When I landed in Terrace there were people that I worked with that greeted me at the airport, and I appreciated that very much, so everything was set up before I came.”
After returning, Nielsen noticed that not very many people knew about brain injuries. She had a drive to change that so she started attending conferences on the subject. There she met other brain injury survivors, gathered information and brought her knowledge back to Terrace.
“When I first came back to Terrace there was one lady in Kitimat who’s son had a brain injury so she came over one time and talked,” she said.
“It is very important to talk to someone that has the same situation as you have.”
She distributed information in the The Terrace Standard, and provided literature to the library, college, fire department, RCMP and local government.
“When I did that it felt good because it was productive and meaningful to me, so I was really good,” she said.
She treated conferences like a holiday, doing research before going and seeing the places she wanted to see. Her conference hopping has taken her around B.C. and from coast to coast.
“I liked the one in P.E.I., oh man I really liked that,” she said. “I took a bus tour of part of Prince Edward Island and we went to [the home of] Anne of Green Gables, I liked that, I’d never been out there before.”
Over the years, Nielsen would meet the same people at conferences. She said it is always good to get caught up with them. Talking to other survivors was important for her to learn more about herself and is crucial for other brain injury survivors too. She bought several copies of the book “Winds of Change,” which contains brain injury survivors’ stories and donated them.
“I bought it because other survivors’ stories, for me that was a non-stop read like I just wanted to keep reading and reading and reading it because of the different survivors, so if you can’t get a hold of one the book would be a start.”
In 2011, Nielsen was the first person to be awarded the Debbie and Trevor Greene Award of Honour, which acknowledges a person’s “extraordinary, heroic contribution to advance the cause of acquired brain injury in Canada.”
Two years later, she was presented with the 2013 Brain Injury Association of Canada Award of Merit at a conference in Kingston, Ont. A year after that, she was presented a Brain Injury Canada communication award.
She spoke at a conference to a much larger crowd than she was expecting. Nielsen said she wasn’t nervous because she was able to use knowledge from a public speaking course she took at UBC.
“I was the first speaker, and I believe there were three, four other ones and we all had a different thing, and after our conversations people came up to us and they said that they had tears in their eyes, so in other words we did something right,” she said.
Nielsen is a decorated brain injury advocate, but she has used her passion to raise awareness and create change for other causes in Terrace. She pushed hard for a backyard burning ban, elevators in City Hall and the library, helmet signage at the skate park and bike racks at the Sportsplex. She also worked towards extended hours for the Handydart service and more.
“I’ve done a lot, and I don’t take no for an answer. If there’s something that concerns me, and it’s not just me I’m also looking at other people as well, if it would help other people as well,” she said,
“I don’t shut up until I get something done, a lot of it was the city and I think the councillors listened to my concerns I had and did action on them.”
Nielsen even inspired changes to federal income tax in 1992. After her injury, she took a typing course at the college in Terrace. She realized she couldn’t claim her education because she was only working six hours at the college — a full load for her — but the minimum to claim was 10 hours.
“I wrote to my MP about that so he sent a letter off so people with disabilities, if they are attending less than 10 hours, then they can claim it on the income tax.”
These days, Nielsen is mostly hunkered down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She walks as much as she can and enjoys 3D puzzles.
She had plans to start bowling derailed by the virus, so she has been practicing by rolling her garbage and recycling bins down the driveway.
Nielsen will always keep raising awareness of brain injuries and working to make changes to help others.
“When I do things it’s not just for me, it’s for everybody else.”
Ben Bogstie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Interior News