Cristina Malana – a brain injury won’t stop this scholar and volunteer

When you were in school, did you have a moment when you realized you were having trouble seeing the chalk board?

Was it a headache? The first sign you needed glasses?

When Cristina Malana had trouble seeing the board in 2012, she could never have imagined what was going to happen next.

Cristina went home thinking she was under the weather. Instead she fell into a coma.

“I had this huge headache, and then I couldn’t move or speak,” said Cristina, who was just 17 at the time.

She managed to call a friend but her speech was too slurred to be understood. Worried, her friend dashed to Cristina’s house to see what was wrong. She found Cristina in terrible pain and vomiting.

After that, it’s a blur. 

18 lost days

Cristina had an AVM bleed – that means the veins in her brain were criss-crossed and became so tangled, they ruptured causing bleeding in her brain.

She was rushed into emergency surgery. There was nothing her parents could do but wait…for 18 days. That’s how long Cristina remained in a coma.  

When she finally woke up, “everything was different,” she said. “I had a tracheotomy and I had a lot of tubes coming in and out of me.”

What’s Holland Bloorview?

After being in hospital for a month, she was transferred to Holland Bloorview. She had never heard of the hospital before.

She remembers being transported by ambulance and thinking, ‘What happened to my life?’

“I was on my way,” she said. “I was an honour student planning to go to university for accounting. That was my dream.”

Instead she arrived at Holland Bloorview unable to speak and too weak to push her own wheelchair.

Holland Bloorview became her home for the next four months where she underwent hours of intensive physiotherapy, speech therapy, and counselling.

“I was able to talk to someone who helped me unravel the negative emotions,” she said.

Still, accepting what had happened wasn’t easy.

“I felt depressed,” she admitted. “Having this bomb thrown at you, your whole world has changed and you don’t know what’s going to happen next...I felt like a lost cause.”

Working with Holland Bloorview’s therapists, her strength and her spirits improved. But she had to come to terms with the fact that life was going to be different going forward.  

Her road back was made even more difficult by the fact that while at Holland Bloorview, Cristina had to return to her acute care hospital to undergo more operations.

High school + Holland Bloorview = challenge

Cristina left Holland Bloorview as an inpatient but continued therapy as an out-patient for two years.

Finishing high school while continuing therapy was “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” she said.  Add to this, a fourth operation.

Determined and focused, she still graduated from high school with honours and received the Principal’s Award for perseverance. Her principal fought back tears telling her graduating class about what she had overcome.

Higher education with honours

Cristina was accepted into George Brown College’s marketing program where she is set to graduate in just a few months – with honours again.

To complete her courses, she spoke up for what she needed.

She asked her instructors for accommodations like extra time for tests and extensions for assignments. She also used a memory aid – a type of “cheat sheet” for tests that listed trigger words.

Still home to her

On top of being a full-time college student, Cristina has also been volunteering at Holland Bloorview by serving on the hospital’s Youth Advisory Council (YAC) since 2014.

Made up of current and former clients in their teens and early 20s, the YAC shares its voice with families, clinicians and hospital leaders on issues such as programs and services, research, and teaching and learning.

“I wanted to give back,” said Cristina, now 21. “Holland Bloorview has a special place in my heart. Even though I’m not an inpatient, I still consider this home.”

She loves being on this committee.

“We evaluate current programs and talk about what could be done to improve them,” she said.   “I know what it’s like to be here, so I can share my opinions to benefit other youth with disabilities.”

She also credits Holland Bloorview and the YAC with showing her the importance of being your own advocate – a lesson she will use going forward, as she considers what she wants to do after graduation.

Whether it’s attending university or starting a career, you can be sure Cristina will make the necessary adjustments to succeed.