Gun victim will share her tale with rehab students

Six years ago, Louise Russo caught two bullets meant for a man standing in line behind her at a Downsview sandwich shop. The bullets shattered her spine and left her paralyzed from the chest down, but they only temporarily felled her. Within two years, this mother of three began crusading against violence and advocating for those with disabilities.

On May 3, Russo wheels in to York to tell rehab students – and anybody else who is interested – what happened to her and how her whole life changed after the injury. She speaks in the Kaleidoscope Room in Seneca @ York’s Stephen E. Quinlan Building, at noon.

Left: Louise Russo

“I hope students will learn what it is like to be on the other side, to see things from the perspective of a victim who has unexpectedly lost so much and had to recover,” says Maggie Toplak, York coordinator of the York-Seneca Joint Program in Rehabilitation Services in the Faculty of Health.

Russo is the second inspirational speaker Toplak and her Seneca counterpart Serena Crisalli have invited to speak to their students, in training for rehabilitation counselling. The first was David Lepofsky, the blind lawyer who got the Toronto Transit Commission to announce subway and bus stops, who spoke last year. (See YFile, April 23, 2009.)

Lepofsky and Russo are “two highly accomplished people who have overcome obstacles and persisted in the face of unbelievable adversity and are working for the greater good,” says Toplak. “Not only do they try to lead their own lives, they try to make a difference for others.”

Russo hopes students will come away from her talk with an appreciation of how important it is to show patients empathy and give them hope. She’ll never forget waking up in intensive care the day after the shooting and the surgeon saying: “Just realize you’re never going to walk again.” Russo couldn’t believe it. Only 24 hours before she had been a normal human being leading a normal life. The surgeon’s cold tone was bad enough, but “not to give me any hope, to give me no hope at all” was worse.

However, as the mother of a severely disabled daughter who has defied all prognoses, Russo knew nobody can predict how people will recover. “Regardless of the challenges your clients will have,” she plans to tell students, “there is always a window of opportunity, there is always hope. You should always encourage them.”

Though Russo realized the surgeon was correct, she resolved not to be defeated by her injury. “I said to myself, ‘OK, what can I do to move forward? How can I live my life the best way I can?’”

Injured in April 2004, Russo was home by December. A year later, she was driving a van using hand controls. In 2006, she founded Walk Against Violence Everywhere (W.A.V.E – now Working Against Violence Everyday), a non-profit organization focused on inspiring young people to create safer communities.

Right: Louise Russo (centre) with 2007 Louise Russo Youth Award winners Mika Imai (left) and Lucile Neden of Riverdale Collegiate Institute

These words motivate her: “In April 2004, violence stopped being a word and became a cause.”

In 2007, the second Walk Against Violence Everywhere was co-sponsored by York’s LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence & Conflict Resolution and held at the Toronto Track & Field Centre on the Keele campus. (See YFile, May 23, 2007.)

With the funds raised from the annual walk, Russo established the Louise Russo Youth Awards, recognizing youth who come up with ways to reduce violence in their schools and communities. Last year, she launched the Louise Russo Empowering Youth Day, a huge annual event attended by more than 850 students from 33 schools in the Greater Toronto Area and featuring inspirational speakers and entertainers. The second promises to be as big on May 11.

Despite her injury, Russo tries to carry on the way she used to. “I’m still there for my kids. I’m still able to do a lot of the same things I used to do.” Her son Steven (BSc Hons. ’07), a York biology student at the time of the shooting, reassured her afterwards: “’You know, Mom, what happened to you is awful. But I still have my mom.’ I looked at him: ‘God willing, you will for a long time.’”

“This is the way I see it,” she says. One day you are driving to work along the usual route. Suddenly, you see road closures ahead and have to make a detour. “Sometimes it’s a long, winding road and slower, but it’s the end result that counts.”

“I’m not denying I have my bad days,” says Russo, who can’t get out of bed or get into the shower without help. “There’s always a Mount Everest to climb. I am not going to walk again, but this is not the end of my life. I’m building the new normal. It’s all about attitude.”

“One of the simplest things I miss is going for a walk with my husband and holding hands with him or going dancing. I can dance in a wheelchair, but it’s not the same,” she says. “I would like to go travelling to Europe, but many of the historical buildings aren’t accessible. Even in our own city many places are not accessible.”

That could change as Russo continues to advocate, as she always has, on behalf of individuals with special needs. She is a board member for the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), an independent agency that advises the attorney general of Ontario on victims’ issues.

For her efforts, Russo won three major honours in 2008: the YMCA of Greater Toronto’s Peace Medallion Award, the Attorney General’s Victim Services Award of Distinction, and the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s Toronto Secondary Unit Award of Recognition.

Russo’s younger daughter Krista is studying psychology at York and may choose to go into the joint rehabilitation services program, says her mother. The 20-year-old program is unique in Canada for combining a BA in psychology with a college certificate in rehabilitation services.

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer