I have to say that 2013 is shaping up to be a very exciting and fruitful year, as far as my professional life is concerned. I received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in early February, spoke at the Canadian Federation of University Women (CFUW) shortly thereafter, been interviewed on Rogers TV Daytime Toronto, was interviewed for an article in the next issue of YorkU Magazine, and was written up in the Queen’s Alumni Magazine this month. I’m honoured and grateful for all of it. My message means the world to me and I want to share it with as many people as I can.
That’s also why I am delighted to be featured in the latest CFUW Oakville IN TOUCH publication. You can read the article below, or download the entire edition by clicking here.
Queen Elizabeth 11 Diamond Jubilee Medal Recipient. Do you want to not die ? Or do you want to live?
By Victoria Skalin
For many of us the question, “Do you want to not die ? Or do you want to live?” may seem like it is asking the same thing. For Melissa Vassallo, this was the question that would define who she would become and the changes she would have on the world.
Melissa Vassallo is a 30-year-old woman from Oakville, Ontario and a valued member of the CFUW Oakville.
At a young age she took great pride and responsibility in taking care of others. “Having big sister syndrome everywhere I went was a part of my every day life,” said Vassallo. “It was a characteristic of who I was.” After her brother was in a tobogganing accident at a young age, Vassallo took on more and more responsibility. When she was in high school she hoped to go on to university and then to law school. “I figured that if I was a lawyer, every day I would help people achieve their rights.” Vassallo set off to Queens for her Bachelors Degree in English literature. It was there that she truly found herself. “It was so much like Oakville, a tight knit community and I knew I was on the right track.”
When Melissa was 22-years-old she and her friends left for a trip to Florida for Spring Break. Tragically an accident prohibited them from reaching their destination. “Back then, Ford Explorers were known for flipping,” explained Vassallo. “We flipped 16 times.” Vassallo lost two friends in the accident and was taken to hospital in the United States, where the accident had taken place.
It was this set of events that started Vassallo’s life off in a new direction.
“My doctor asked me, Do you want to live? Or do you want to not die?”
“I was so confused. I was in total shock. I had no idea what had happened and I couldn’t understand what he was asking me,” she said. “But I knew I wanted to live. I wanted to survive. More than that, I wanted to thrive.”
Vassallo had to be resuscitated three times. She underwent numerous surgeries in the US. “I am so thankful for our health care system in Canada,” Vassallo said. “My stay in the US hospital for six weeks racked up a $1.8 million dollar bill. In Canada I was in recovery for years. I would never have been able to afford that,” Vassallo said. Vassallo had purchased traveller’s insurance for $15 from CAA. This insurance covered all of her costs.
But Vassallo’s worries weren’t over after the accident; she was struck by hardship after hardship. When she finally reached a settlement from the accident and was ready to move on and start her life over again with her family, her father passed away. “You know, it is bittersweet. You take the good, you take the bad, and all together you have a life. It’s not fair, it’s not pretty but it’s real. There are no fairy godmothers that are going to wave their magic wands.”
This February 16 marked the 11th anniversary of the accident that changed her life and since that day in 2002, Vassallo has created six steps that can help people thrive in life: develop a power perspective, learn to define and redefine, accept you can’t do it alone, accommodate personal space needs, reorganize and resocialize, and contribute to others and the community.
Vassallo is currently working on her Masters to start a house similar to the Ronald McDonald Fund but for people ages 18-30. “At this time there is nowhere for people age 18-30 who are disabled or inaccessible, to get help. I’d like to change that.”
It was through her desire to access this assistance, that Vassallo was nominated for the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. Vassallo was awarded the medal this year for her dedicated, hard work and contribution to accessibility in Canada.
“I feel so honoured and I wear it with pride,” said Vassallo.
Vassallo has many plans for the future, including writing a book about where life has taken her, finishing her Masters Degree, and making tons of lemonade and meringue pie. “When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. I often think that I am drowning in lemonade, so why not make some lemon meringue pie,” Vassallo said with a smile. One thing is for sure, wherever Melissa Vassallo’s life takes her, she will be thriving, not just surviving.
March 2013 CFUW Oakville IN TOUCH