A tale of two lives is often the story of people who’ve experienced a spinal cord injury – the life before their injury and their life afterwards. For Brook McCall, the Grassroots Advocacy Manager for the United Spinal Association, this is definitely the case. While a severe spinal cord injury may have changed the life path she was on, she simply went back to the drawing board and made a new path for herself. But that’s not all.
McCall has been living her life on her own terms since her injury. From retooling her career path to becoming a rising advocate in the disability community, read on for Brook’s story; a quadriplegic, an advocate and a woman with tight fashion-sense.
Why She’s Fearless
Growing up in San Luis Obispo, California, McCall was active in sports, but she also had a love of fashion that she decided to foster at the University of California at Santa Barbara and working at Nordstrom. And by her senior year, she had job opportunities in New York City as a retail buyer. Unfortunately, these dreams were put on hold in 2002 when she broke her neck the day before her senior year. “I accidentally locked myself out of my house and the neighbor suggested I climb over from his balcony. It seemed easy enough, but my hand slipped at the last moment and I fell backwards headfirst on to the driveway below.”
Her injury was a C4 complete, which means she was left with only a small ability to move her shoulder. “I have no functional arm movement at all except a devastating shoulder shrug. My level of functioning and sensation have never changed or improved, at all. Sometimes I wonder if my lack of gains alleviated some of those early day struggles. It took me no time at all to realize that if I wanted something, I was going to have to get very used asking for the help I required.”
Despite the frustrations of needing assistance for most activities now, McCall has only done one thing – focus on the future – which included figuring out how to live as a quadriplegic as quickly as she could. “I was impatient to get back to my life or at least some semblance of the life I had before. I like to think of myself as a realistic optimist generally, but in this instance, it may have just been more of a blind optimism. Internally, I felt frustrated with the fears and warnings from clinicians, family, and those around me that getting back to where I was would be likely impossible.”
And she’s firmly believed she could still do what she wanted in life in spite of her injury. After four months in the hospital, she was ready to go back to school and she transferred to the University of California San Diego with the goal of become a doctor. Soon however she changed her career path again, this time to public health. “In grad school, I remember distinctly that we learned briefly about advocacy, but the professor’s take away was that not enough people are doing it and how impactful the advocate for all is. That really resonated, and as someone with a disability I knew my voice had elevated value because not only did I have training, but I had experience.”
And this is what inspired her to apply to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she was accepted to pursue a Master’s degree in Public Health. McCall received a scholarship from the Swim with Mike Foundation, which is one of the most generous scholarship programs for people with spinal cord injuries in the country (any former athlete with a spinal cord injury can apply). McCall graduated with her Master’s degree in 2014.
After graduating, McCall didn’t miss a beat. “I moved to Oregon right after finishing up grad school to do a post-grad fellowship at Oregon’s Health and Science University.” After a missed job opportunity there, she continued to look for work, but was unable to find anything suitable. “I could feel employers’ trepidation in trusting if I could fulfill the role. It was the largest challenge I had felt yet.” McCall began to develop relationships with the Portland spinal cord injury community as a result, which led to making a close friend who worked for the United Spinal Association.
“He encouraged me to attend our Roll on Capitol Hill event where I experienced the power of advocating alongside others from across the country and got to meet the staff. When a job on the policy team opened up, he helped make the connection and the rest is history.” Brook is able to work from home as well. In her position, she organizes advocacy representatives in all 54 chapters of organization. She also helps develop legislation relationships in local areas. “I like being able to help others tell their stories and feel that their voice matters, because it does.”
“The funny thing is, during my fellowship and my long year of questioning what my future would look like, many people asked me what my ideal job would look like. What I described was very close to the role I have now. So, I love Portland because I have found such a beautiful community here and it’s green and beautiful.”
When she’s not working, McCall is often outside on the plentiful accessible hiking trails near her home, hanging out with friends or her dog Boone. She also has her eye on further involvement in the evolution of adaptive fashion. “My original plan was to go into fashion and I didn’t think there was room for me in that world as a person with a disability. I like that I think the opposite now and know that my voice and experience as someone who needs help getting dressed, but loves clothing, would be welcome in the discussion.”
– Brook’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ohbrook/?hl=en
– Brook’s blog: https://www.facebook.com/spinalcoordinated