Meet Ella Dorner: Amnesia Survivor Turned Motivational Speaker
We’ve seen the medical condition portrayed in Hollywood— the protagonist we’ve come to know and love wakes up without their memory and any recollection of the past. Characters like Lucy from 50 First Dates or Paige from The Vow. What follows is a charming and quirky quest for true love to be remembered and identity restored. A bump on the head leads to a cheesy, romantic rendition of the hero’s journey.
When Ella Dorner woke up at the age of 15 after falling down a flight of stairs in her family home, what followed was anything but charming. The first 24 hours after the fall, Ella underwent numerous medical tests including an MRI and EEG. “Having amnesia, I thought they were trying to kill me when they put me in the MRI,” she recalls. “In my fight or flight mode, I thought they were like: okay we couldn’t kill her in the tube, and now we’re trying to torture her because of it.”
Amnesia is defined as “the loss of memories, such as facts, information and experiences.” The cause of the condition can range— tumors, strokes, and infection can induce amnesia, as can long-term alcohol abuse. In Ella’s case, the doctors determined a seizure was the likely source. “It was kind of like a game of hot potato” she tells me, “no one wanted to take on the case because there was so much liability.” After bouncing between Psych and Neuro, Ella finally ended up in the Epilepsy wing. “I didn’t see my parents, I just saw humans which was weird. People would say things and it wouldn’t make sense [to me], the word correlation wasn’t there. If someone says ‘coffee’ you immediately think of the brown jazzy stuff, you know exactly what it is and what it looks like. Maybe the word coffee sounded familiar, but I had no object to compare it to.”
One thing Ella did recognize: Destiny’s Child’s Say My Name. On the car ride home from the hospital it came on the stereo and Ella knew every word. “I knew every single word to Destiny’s Child, but I didn’t know who my parents were, or who I was,” she recalls. It was the first insight she had into her previous life, and the beginning of a long recovery.
Ella’s mother was a speech pathology teacher, which meant much of her recovery could happen at home. She relearned colors by folding socks, and understood organization by putting the silverware away. But Ella was terrified to leave the house, going places and being around people was just too overwhelming.
“Recovery was weird. At first it was really depressing and awful… For awhile there I had a huge self identity thing. I was told who I am and what I like and what I don’t like and what life I’m living and where I’m going and what I like to do. That was really overwhelming, I hated whoever this Ella girl was. It was a really hard time in my life.”
On her first birthday after the accident (which she didn’t quite understand— why were people singing and why was she blowing out candles?) her parents told her to make a wish. On her sixteenth birthday, she wished she was dead. This was a wakeup call for Ella and her family— her doctors put her on a heavy dose of antidepressant and anxiety medication. But exceptionally, it wasn’t the medication that saved her.
“I remember every day I would sit in our kitchen on this little counter and that’s where I would eat and learn. My father said something to me one time, he said it then he flashed me this big smile so I knew that I was supposed to laugh. That was the first time I laughed, but it wasn’t even a laugh, to call it a laugh would be rude, it was like a snot rocket… that was the first hope I think I had. I thought: maybe I can feel like this more… So I kind of lived laugh to laugh for awhile.”
In Ella’s words “laughter is an emotional superpower,” and being a friend of Ellas, I can attest her lifestyle reflects this. Whenever she walks into a room the mood lightens, the tone changes. She’ll ease any tension with a joke and a smile, and those around her immediately feel like they’re in the company of an old friend. She is passionate about making others laugh and thoughtful to recognize that we never really know what others are going through. “Know that no one is doing any harm to you on purpose,” Ella tells me. “Maybe that person has a kid at home with a brain injury and they’re exhausted, or that person who cut you off while driving is on the way to the hospital.” With her humor, compassion, and patience towards others, it’s no surprise motivational speaking was in Ella’s future.
Her first speaking gig was casual, in front of a group of her mother’s students. “It was terrible,” Ella recalls with a laugh, but continues with, “I had fun.” She found it surprising that people were interested in and inspired by her experience, so she kept going. She started speaking at brain injury events, women's groups, corporate conferences. Her overall message? You guessed it: laughter. “Being able to bring adults back to that childhood optimism is something I really like to do,” Ella says. She encourages her audience to step back and breathe, to recognize their struggles and the weight of them. Instead of letting pain and heartache overwhelm and discourage, Ella encourages audiences to find some light, some humor in each life challenge— “If you don’t have the ability to laugh, you’re never going to get out of it.”
But laughter doesn’t always come easy, life can throw curveballs none of us are prepared to smile at— how can we find a light, even in these darkest of times? “It’s finding joy in little tiny things each day, and being able to find laughter in each day,” she explains. “I think there’s a huge difference between laughing at something and being able to laugh within.”
In 2019, it has become second nature to numb our pain, to suppress and ignore instead of confront the grief we’re dealing with- there’s dating apps, there’s social media networks, there’s a booming nightlife industry. But Ella encourages us to embrace our emotions, to question them, and even discuss them with others. “I think there’s a miraculous domino effect when one person says something… Having the courage to start and admit one vulnerable thing, everyone will pile onto it, everyone will want to sit at that table so they can join in on the conversation.”
When Ella was first diagnosed with amnesia, the doctors told her she could get up to 70% of her memories back in the next nine years— after ten years, she’s regained 7-8%. But this doesn’t bother Ella, she’s created a new life for herself, and that’s something she’s proud of. “Yeah I had to fall down a staircase to do this (and I don’t recommend that) but I created a different life for myself, and you can start a different life tomorrow if you want to. You can change your mindset one day and say: I’m going to make this change and I want to move or I want to change jobs or whatever, and it’s nuts, because you can.”
About the Author: Olivia Wickstrom is the Founder & Editor in Chief of Nectar Media. Skilled in travel & culture journalism and creative non fiction, she is passionate about inspiring others to explore and question new ideas, social constructs, and the world around them.