UND senior recounts months of amnesia following traumatic brain injury

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- For several months when she was 16, Ella Dorner walked around with her phone number written on her stomach. It was a precautionary measure her family took in case she disappeared from their sight. "If she got out of the house...

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Ella Dorner and Rupert, her 4 month old pomeranian mix stand in their apartment hallway Friday afternoon. Dorner has become a motivational speaker and is set to graduate from UND next semester. (Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald)

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- For several months when she was 16, Ella Dorner walked around with her phone number written on her stomach.

It was a precautionary measure her family took in case she disappeared from their sight.

"If she got out of the house, she would be lost," her mother, Jules Dorner, said. "I had dog tags on her so if she got lost, someone would find her."

Ella wore the identifiers because she didn't know who she was.

"And if I didn't know who I was, how would anyone else know who I am if they found me?" said Ella, who is now 22 and set to graduate from UND in May.


At the time, Ella Dorner suffered from retrograde amnesia, the result of a traumatic brain injury she sustained when she hit her head during a fall down a set of stairs in her home. The injury and subsequent grand mal seizure left her with amnesia and a loss of her peripheral vision when blood flow to part of her brain was interrupted.

In addition to forgetting the identities of her family, friends and acquaintances, simple tasks such as eating and bathing became foreign processes to Ella. Everyday items surrounding her no longer had names or uses attached to their identity.

"The first time I had food, it was cereal, and I spit it out right away because at first I was like, 'Where is it going?'" Ella said.

At the time, the loss of memory was of the least worry to Jules Dorner, who works as a speech and language pathologist in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

"That didn't matter. She was in this infantile state, that was the fear--the fear that she would lose all cognitive ability," Jules said. "If she couldn't remember her life, that was fine. We could deal with that. But losing her ability to learn was the fear.

"Once we figured out she could remember and she could learn, everything was great."

Jules and Ella both use words such as "bizarre" and "strange" to describe life during that time, but after speaking to one of her mom's classes, Ella decided to turn the experience toward a bigger cause.

Since her junior year of college, Ella has traveled the region as a motivational speaker to share her story. Apart from telling humorous anecdotes about her recovery to her audiences, she seeks to share the message that even the smallest everyday joys and experiences shouldn't be taken for granted.


"One of my favorite parts of speaking is breaking down our daily routine and showing how insane and bizarre everything actually is," Ella said. "It's fun, and people kind of giggle and realize maybe their life isn't so boring."


The world that greeted Ella upon her release from the hospital six years ago was far from boring.

The overwhelming environment full of strangers and alien rituals prompted Jules and her husband, Jeff Dorner, to pitch a tent in Ella's room.

There the teenager slept, learned and slowly regained her memory in what she felt was a safe space, though sometimes sleep offered little comfort or escape from the strange world around her.

"At first, I didn't know the difference between a dream and reality," Ella said. "So you know when you have those nightmares when something is chasing you? I woke up, and I would continue to think that something was chasing me."

That and other experiences made her anxious, though sitting in the tent helped calm some of those fears.


In her haven, Ella kept her teddy bear, Oodles, and a stack of old IDs and business cards that identified members of her family.

"I basically had trading cards of my family," she said. "If my mom came, she would point to her picture, and then I'd see it and say, 'That's OK,' and then I'd let her come in the tent a little bit."

On the inside of the tent walls, Ella scribbled "U R OK" while her mom wrote, "The blonde lady is your mother ... and she loves you very much."

While Ella slept in her tent, Jules made a bed in the hallway outside her room and slept there many nights throughout her daughter's recovery.

She also accompanied Ella to school and used her background in early elementary education to help her daughter progress.

Always learning

Over the course of six to seven months, Ella began regaining her memory but still needed to relearn the names of people, places and items that had surrounded her for years.

Help came from all fronts--from her sister, Hannah, 25, who would answer endless questions to her friends and boyfriend at the time who would text her pictures and words.

Even the family dog, Tyler, contributed in his own way, sitting quietly while Ella told him about her day. But there was something about animals that she didn't quite grasp until later on in her recovery.

"Every day I would set aside time to sit and talk to him, but I got offended because he would never talk to me," she said, laughing.

It's a memory Jules can find humor in now as well.

"I came home and she was crying," Jules recalled. "I said, 'Ell, what's wrong?' and she said, 'He doesn't like me, he won't tell me anything.'"

During that time, every moment was filled with learning for Ella. A trip to the store left the teen awestruck, as there was shelf after shelf of unknown items.

Ella remembers going through stores eating grapes and opening packages, exploring items that opened doorways into others' daily routines--something she was still getting the hang of, too.

"We had to watch her all the time," Jules said. "She didn't know how to push a cart, she didn't know what it was, she didn't know the aisles--she didn't know any of it. She'd go down an aisle and then she didn't know to turn. She'd just stand there."

In the spotlight

Though a casual conversation might not clue someone into her past, Ella is still missing a large expanse of memories.

"Right now, I don't recall anything from before sixth grade--but I've seen pictures and I don't think I want to," she said jokingly.

Doctors estimated she would regain about 70 percent of her memory over the course of nine years.

"People ask me a lot what I don't remember," Ella said. "But I don't know what I don't know."

She still carries a small memento with her from that time: a small dog tag in the shape of a heart inscribed with her name, address and home phone number.

Rupert, her puppy and therapy dog in training, will soon wear a similar tag on his collar.

When Ella's not going to school, speaking or working, she and Rupert work on his training.

"I think it's a good sign that he likes people so much," Ella said, "because when we do start going to hospitals and schools and stuff, it'll be really fun to have him in there."

Part pomeranian and part chihuahua, the 4-month-old puppy's bubbly disposition is similar to his owner's.

"She'll walk into a room and all of a sudden everybody is happy," Jules said.

For a short time, Jules worried her daughter's personality and character were victims of the brain injury. Time has told a different story.

"That was the hardest thing to think as a parent: 'Will I lose the child that I raised?" Jules said. "And I didn't."

She's proud that her daughter is sharing her experience as a speaker.

Ella has spoken at schools, churches, business and conferences during her short time on the circuit. She credits her mentor, Mark Lindquist, with helping her find her footing.

Lindquist also is a motivational speaker, but his name is recognized locally as the national anthem singer at UND men's hockey games.

He said hearing her story still gives him shivers, mostly the part about the writing in the tent.

"I've never met anybody who forgot their life," Lindquist said. "Amnesia is the punch line of a joke; it's not a real thing where you've ever met somebody with amnesia."

With a story as unique as hers, he predicts big things for Ella, adding she's perfect for the job.

It's a sentiment her mom shares.

"I thought it would make her sad to relive it, but if anything it's made her stronger, Jules said.

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