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Brain injury failed to stop Elizabeth from achieving her dreams

Media student ‘tremendously excited’ after long road to graduation

When Elizabeth Baxa stepped on to the stage at graduation to accept her degree, she had more reason than most to celebrate the culmination of her studies.

For Elizabeth, a bright, vivacious 28-year-old, that moment represented a decade-long journey filled with more obstacles and strength than most of us could imagine.

Elizabeth began her studies at the University of Wollongong (UOW) in 2007 with a double degree in Communication Studies and Commerce, with an eye to eventually forging a career in media and public relations.

Two years later, while at her then-boyfriend’s house, she began suffering from a run-of-the-mill headache, which quickly turned sinister.

“I just had a headache so I took some Panadol and drank lots of water, but it rapidly intensified,” Elizabeth recalled.

“It quickly from a headache to insanity. I felt like my head was being hit with a jackhammer. I was throwing up, speaking in different languages, I had no idea where I was. My boyfriend’s mother had had a similar experience before with her husband, so she knew to call an ambulance. Thankfully she did, otherwise things would be very different.”

Weeks later, Elizabeth woke up in the Intensive Care Unit. The headache was a brain haemorrhage. She was in her early 20s.

What followed was a gruelling few years as Elizabeth tried to claw her way back to recovery. She moved from hospital to rehab, where she slowly learned to walk, talk, and write again. She joined the Illawarra Brain Injury Service (IBIS), and took part in their groups on a daily basis, although she initially had no idea why she was there.

“I was the youngest person there, and all the other people had these really horrific stories, and I just couldn’t understand why I was there. I didn’t have a car accident, I didn’t have a sad story,” Elizabeth said.

“Then one day it all hit me, and I came home and said to my grandparents, ‘Did you know I had a brain haemorrhage?!’ and they just burst into tears. I kept going between not realising what had happened, and then realising all over again.”

Elizabeth laughs about her injury now – a lot – despite the very heavy subject matter. And that positive attitude has clearly helped her through some tough times, including when she tried to return to university at her previous pace.

“When I was in hospital, I kept asking when I could go back to uni, and the nurses and doctors would tell me I wasn’t going back for a long time. But after a few years, they eventually let me. I wanted to start with three subjects a semester, but I was only allowed to start with one.

“I was worried that I’d be graduating when I was 90!”

Elizabeth Baxa Graduation 2

She was paired with note takers and mentors to help her on the way to completing her studies, but Elizabeth found it tough to navigate her way around this new world. Her memory was patchy, and despite studying long hours, she found it difficult to recall what she had learned.

It all fell into place, however, when she met Dr Kate Bowles, Senior Lecturer in Communications and Media Studies in the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts.

“Kate immediately understood what I needed. She helped me immensely,” Elizabeth said. “I thought everyone who had a brain injury would return to study, until Kate made me realise I was trying something unusual.

“Kate has just been so fantastic, and it all become so much easier after I met her.”

Kate, for her part, said she and her colleagues who got to know Elizabeth gained just as much from their relationship with her.

“It’s been a real privilege to work with Liz. She’s challenged us to be more flexible, and she’s been so generous and positive in sharing her experience. We often say someone is an inspiration, but Liz really is,” Kate said.

Elizabeth also thanked her UOW Disability Liaison Officer, Joanne Vercoe, her notetaker, Christel Krelius, and her mentor, William Littlefield.

Today (Friday 20 April), Elizabeth graduated with a Bachelor of Communication and Media Studies.

Graduating for Elizabeth was a moment of incredible pride, but tinged with a hint of sadness that her time at UOW has come to an end. She is now searching for a role in the world of media and public relations.

She is passionate about supporting those with cognitive disabilities and would love to do something in this space, after spending five years working for disability services provider, House With No Steps.

“I’m tremendously excited and proud to be graduating,” she said. “But I will miss UOW.”