Waterloo Region Record

Wheelchair never stopped the determined Karen Morris from fulfilling her dreams

Karen Morris of New Hamburg Born: March 6, 1956, in Toronto Died: July 27, 2019, of pneumonia

- VALERIE HILL vhill@therecord.com Twitter: @HillRecord

NEW HAMBURG— In the spring of 1974 Karen Morris had just graduated from Grade 13, an A student, gold medal winner and Ontario scholar.

She had a full scholarshi­p to university so she could pursue her dream of becoming a social worker.

It seemed all her hard work and positive spirit was paying off — until one tragic afternoon when everything changed.

It was July 20, 1974, a few months after her 18th birthday when Karen and her friend Carrie Pearo were walking along a beach road to the Salvation Army summer camp in Jackson’s Point where the girls worked in the kitchen.

Their lives and bodies were shattered when an impaired driver slammed into the girls. Carrie sustained a head injury from which she would recover but Karen’s spinal cord was shattered.

Karen later said in an interview, “I remember Carrie screaming but I tried to get up to see how she was but I couldn’t move and I wondered why not.”

The teen would never walk again, confined to a wheelchair and declared quadripleg­ic with no feeling below the chest and only limited functionin­g of her arms.

Carrie, who later became a teacher, was released from hospital after several weeks and her family moved to Calgary.

Rememberin­g those first months following the crash Karen once told a reporter “some nights I’d go crazy, I’d just want to run and run and run and I couldn’t.

“And I was so restless.” The driver had taken the car from his father without permission so there would be no insurance settlement though she did win a civil suit and was awarded a small amount, a fraction of what she would need to live on.

For Karen, this new normal would delay but not stop her from pursuing her original course. One year after the crash, she was attending classes part-time at Wilfrid Laurier University.

“I felt left out at the beginning,” she told a reporter. “I was very shy and had to become a lot more outgoing.”

Post-secondary schools didn’t have programs in place to aid students with disabiliti­es like Karen and there was no such thing as laptops or much in the way of technology to help in her studies. As well, most of the buildings at Laurier were not wheelchair accessible.

Karen persevered despite being bedridden for several months on two occasions because sitting in her wheelchair for extended periods to study led to circulatio­n problems and pressure sores.

Her first degree was honours bachelor of arts in literature and sociology followed by master’s in social work She graduated with gold medals for both degrees.

Because her income was so limited, Karen was determined to work and earn money.

“My biggest fear was ending up in a chronic care facility,” she said.

Karen was born the eldest of five children in Toronto on March 6, 1956. The family were members of Mimico Salvation Army and Karen had served as a junior and senior soldier. She was also involved in the senior band, Brownies, Girl Guides, became a Guide leader, Sunday school teacher and volunteere­d in the community.

In high school, Karen explored her musical side, playing trumpet in the band and studying violin and accordion.

The family had purchased a home in Kitchener one month before the accident, though her father Paul continued working in Toronto (he later took a job at the Schneiders plant in Kitchener). Following Karen’s injury she spent one year in Toronto’s Lyndhurst Centre, a rehabilita­tion hospital, but was able to come home on weekends, thanks to her tenacious mother, Eva. The strong family bond helped Karen heal.

“I had a lot of support from my friends and family, that made a world of difference,” she said. “I’m a very religious person and my faith was a great help.”

After graduating from Laurier, Karen worked as a social worker for nine months at K-W Counsellin­g then for two years at the Salvation Army Scarboroug­h Grace Hospital, finishing her career by working 10 years at KidsAbilit­y in Waterloo.

It was an extraordin­ary achievemen­t to have done so well in school and her career, but one that didn’t surprise her longtime caregiver and close friend, Catherine Evenden.

The two met at Salvation Army camp and Catherine along with another friend, helped Karen with everything from researchin­g in the library to typing essays.

“It took her 10 years to do it,” said Catherine. “Her hands were curled, her fingers didn’t work, but she learned to write.”

Karen had also been determined to wear contact lenses, instead of having to wear glasses with their thick lenses.

“The doctor said he wouldn’t give her a prescripti­on unless she learned to put them in herself,” said Catherine, demonstrat­ing the awkward but effective way Karen figured out how to install lenses every morning.

Catherine had been a family friend for years and started volunteeri­ng to help care for Karen to give her mother a break. It became a full-time job after Catherine graduated in English literature, also from Laurier.

Catherine didn’t have any definitive plans for her future though she had considered becoming a Salvation Army pastor. But she felt an even stronger calling to be her friend’s full-time caregiver and she has never regretted a moment over the 38 years. Neither woman married, though both had talked about the possibilit­y of it happening.

Karen’s sister, Carol Patterson, said after the accident doctors told the family most people who are quadripleg­ic can expect to live 25 years. Karen lived for 45, and she credits Catherine’s devotion.

“Catherine’s care is why she lived so long,” said Carol. “We called her Karen’s guardian angel.”

Karen had to retire in 1998 following major surgery and health problems, though she continued volunteeri­ng in the community where she could.

Carol remembers her sister as determined and kind, a second mother to all her siblings and an exceptiona­l aunt.

“She was very unselfish,” said Carol. “What she wanted to do was help other people with her education.”

She also said Karen was the “conscience of our family, the one who kept everyone on the straight and narrow.”

Catherine concluded about her friend, “One of Karen’s greatest joys was to be useful. She hated being a burden. She continued that sense even after death by donating her eyes to the organ bank.”

Once, when asked to reflect on her past, Karen thought the accident had in some ways enhanced her life.

“I was too independen­t before and not thankful enough for what I had,” she said. “I was always pushing for good grades. Now, just living is enough.”

Karen’s health had been deteriorat­ing over the last few years and she died July 27, 2019, following complicati­ons from pneumonia.

Her sister Donna Heasman said through all the struggles, through hospitaliz­ations and through cancer treatment, she never complained.

“Karen was an amazing person, so caring and compassion­ate,” said Donna.

 ?? FAMILY PHOTOS ?? Karen Morris’s spinal cord shattered when an impaired driver hit her.
FAMILY PHOTOS Karen Morris’s spinal cord shattered when an impaired driver hit her.
 ??  ?? Karen Morris graduated with gold medals for two degrees.
Karen Morris graduated with gold medals for two degrees.
 ??  ?? Karen : Caring, compassion­ate.
Karen : Caring, compassion­ate.

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