General News · 10th April 2010
Dr. Emily Ellingsen faced challenges head-on, but cancer cut short a promising career and strong marriage BY KATHERINE DEDYNA, TIMES COLONIST APRIL 9, 2010
A gung-ho girl from day one, Emily Ellingsen had her own beadwork business at the Cortes Island community market by age nine and a so-what stance about being legally blind by the end of high school.
Wildly in love with the man she married at 21, she graduated from McMaster University medical school in 2005 and had nearly finished her five-year psychiatric residency in Victoria when cervical cancer took her life, but not her spirit. It was Feb. 19 and she was 31.
Always "her own person," she wore a nose ring while she practised psychiatry in Victoria, and joked that she learned everything she needed to know about her chosen field by waitressing on Cortes in her teens, says her father, John Woolley.
Ellingsen never took a "poor me" stance about her vision loss, instead pouring her energy into everything from rowing to pushing the boundaries of where medical residents could take their training.
She was born the middle child to a Squirrel Cove family whose house had no running water. "She was a super achiever before she was six," remembers her mother Marion Bennet. "She could sew, weave, do batik and make candles.
"When she walked in the room, you knew she was there," her mother says. "And if you didn't, she'd announce it: 'Hello people, here I am.' " But she was always there for others. Even during her last days in hospital, she urged two immigrant nurses to call her family if they felt lonely. "Here she is, dying of cancer and she's inviting people over," her mother marvels.
Tall and willowy, there was always a fragility about Ellingsen, even though she was unfazed that her progressive eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa, would have left her completely blind had she lived. "That's why she went into psychiatry. She knew she could talk and listen," her mother says. As well, all her life people she had barely met would end up telling her things they had never told anyone else, says friend Erin Robinsong.
She was fearless in life and approaching death, says husband Aaron Ellingsen, 37. She walked home through Fernwood at night not because she was brave but because it would not occur to her to be afraid.
Even in her last days, she relished "every moment." Ellingsen was a fighter but not willing to let her fight against cancer take over everything. She helped renovate their cottage-like home, kept in touch with friends and even helped home-deliver Charlotte Golder, the daughter of friends she had brought together.
Emily and Aaron grew up on Cortes but really connected at a party when he was 24 and she 18. "I don't think I was too hard to get," Aaron says. She was so bright and beautiful. "The sight problem never really slowed her down and the cancer never really slowed her down," he says.
When she died, the University of British Columbia lowered the campus flag in her honour.
"Dr. Emily Ellingsen was a gift," Dr. Jonathan Fleming, Emily's program director in psychiatry at UBC medical school, said in his eulogy. She wanted no concessions for two major exams because of missed time due to her life-threatening disease, and her examiners were unaware of her health history. She passed both exams easily.
Earlier, Ellingsen had e-mailed him that she was holding out to be among the 10 to 20 per cent of women who reach full remission for cervical cancer, given she was already in that category for "height, happiness, lasting love, dorkiness, student debt [and] foot size."
Ellingsen was first diagnosed with cancer of the cervix on Dec. 18, 2006. Her previous Pap test had come back inconclusive.
According to the B.C. Cancer Agency, only one woman under 40 on Vancouver Island dies of cervical cancer per year. Emily seemed to have beaten the cancer after her first round of treatment and found the hardest part was knowing that she would not be able to bear children. She ran the Times Colonist 10K in 62 minutes in April 2008, but by fall she learned that the cancer had recurred in her lymph nodes.
She chose to continue her studies.
Ellingsen brought sparkle and a special maturity to her calling, excelling as a leader for other psychiatric residents and bringing "a huge social conscience" to her work, says Victoria chief of psychiatry Dr. Rivian Weinerman. She was determined to solve patients' problems, even if she had to pull strings.
"She had a huge capacity to listen and understand people," Weinerman says. "One doesn't use the word 'love' often when talking about a colleague," Weinerman said in her eulogy. "We loved Emily and through Emily loved Aaron."
Ellingsen was the first UBC medical resident to demonstrate that it was possible to do most of a five- year residency in psychiatry in Victoria, rather than returning to the Vancouver campus at mid-point - pioneering the way for others.
Her recurrent cancer, which was spreading, forced her to quit after her fourth-year oral exams at the end of 2009.
On Dec. 1, Ellingsen wrote on her Facebook page that, despite being a "tumour factory," most the time she still had hope. "One moment I think I've lost it, and then, there it is. For now, I am preparing for the return of hairlessness, feeling differently sick and, of course, a lot of winter TV in my new state-of-the-art TV room."
Her lifelong friend Robinsong recalls: "We often joked that she had a rare mental illness that was like depression, only the opposite."
Maybe it was her love for Aaron. She would frequently blurt out: "Aaron and I are so in love!"
She grew up "impervious to peer pressure" with an adventurous take on life - "but probably most of it couldn't go into the paper," Robinsong says.
As a child, she moved to New Mexico with her mother, then back to Courtenay for high school. While earning a biology degree at the University of Victoria, she carried a pager at night as a volunteer member of the sexual assault response team, ready to accompany a woman to the police station or
"She was a really phenomenal person," says Jill Ainsley, former co-chair of the Victoria Women's Sexual Assault Centre, a position she later shared with Ellingsen. "She was so bright and so modest. I really had no idea she was going blind because she never talked about it."
Near the end, Emily received many visitors who arrived looking stricken but were almost always at ease after a few minutes with her "straight-up" ways, Robinsong says.
"She loved her life so much," she adds. "In her last few weeks in hospital, she really didn't seem afraid or have regrets or bitterness [about] all the things that might have been."
Her girlfriends got cherry blossom tattoos in honour of the flowers that Emily loved and that bloomed early this year while she was still alive.
Emily Myra Gwen Ellingsen (nee Woolley) was born July 27, 1978, in Comox and died Feb. 19, 2010, in Victoria.
Island Lives is a weekly series celebrating the lives of Island people who have died recently. The series focuses not on the famous, but on our neighbours who have led interesting lives or made a difference in their communities. If you know of someone whose life should be celebrated, let us know by e-mail at featurestc.canwest.com or by mail at 2621 Douglas St., Victoria, B.C., V8T 4M2.
DOCTOR'S DIARY IN SUNDAY'S MONITOR SECTION
- To read about Emily Ellingsen's battle with cervical cancer in her own words, see Sunday's Monitor section, which will feature excerpts from the Facebook diary she kept for family and friends. The diary in its entirety, from her diagnosis to her untimely death, will be featured on our website, timescolonist.com
- Contributions to the Dr. Emily Ellingsen Memorial Scholarship Fund, which has already raised more than $10,000 to support Cortes Island students pursuing post-secondary education, can be sent c/o 1224 Princess Ave., Victoria, B.C. V8T 1L5. For more information, send e-mail to agellingsenhotmail.com.