Audrey Morrice has many talents that have shaped her career working with brain injured Albertans, but the greatest of those talents could arguably be a powerful faith that helps her to see potential where others have given up, and a remarkable instinct that allows her to transform that hope into reality.
Her natural instincts for therapy and rehabilitation first found an outlet following a move to Alberta from her home in Ontario in 1948. Audrey had travelled to Calgary to visit her sister, Lil, but made the move permanent when she met her future husband, George Morrice. They were married in Calgary in 1950.
Audrey had performed some volunteer service in nursing homes as a young adult but it wasn’t until the late 1960s, when the self-taught artist volunteered to teach art to troubled youth and women with mental health problems, that her skills truly began to take shape. She saw in her clients a need for self-esteem and hope. Using a simple and practical approach, she showed them how to create works of art and helped them to build a sense of pride in their accomplishments. She might have continued with that work had she not met Mel Laine. In 1972, Audrey went to Colonel Belcher Veterans Hospital to lend support to Alice Laine, a friend and church choir-mate whose son, Mel, had sustained a profound brain injury from a hit and run accident. The young man lay badly broken and in a persistent vegetative state. Notwithstanding the doctors’ opinions that the young naval radar technician’s condition was most likely permanent, Audrey was convinced she could help him.
Although she had no medical training, Audrey asked for permission to work with Mel. She and Alice worked in shifts, encouraging him to make eye contact, respond and move his muscles. By 1974, Mel was well enough to leave the hospital and, with Audrey’s help, began an extensive program of home care. Over the next four years, they worked together eight hours a day, seven days a week. Audrey’s approach was both caring and practical. She offered unrelenting support and encouragement until Mel shared in her belief that he could recover and devised simple exercises, using everyday objects, to help Mel relearn how to move and communicate. Audrey’s husband, George, used his skills as an electrical engineer to build whatever equipment was needed. Although progress was painstaking, Mel slowly regained his physical, social and communication skills.
Word spread of Mel’s recovery and, by 1977, Audrey was helping others suffering from severe brain injury. In 1978, she and Alice co-founded the non-profit Association for the Rehabilitation of the Brain Injured (ARBI) and began working with three patients in the basement of Woodcliff United Church in Calgary. There was no model to help them shape ARBI, as it was Canada’s first community-based brain injury rehabilitation program. Under Audrey’s guidance, and with support from partners and donors, the roster of ARBI patients continued to grow as did the variety of therapies offered. By 1989, ARBI had increased to 20 patients and moved into its own facility. While ARBI expanded to include a complement of paid professional staff, volunteers and family members continued to play an important role in each patient’s team of helpers.
Audrey served as the Association’s executive director and program director while continuing to work with Mel outside her ARBI duties. Seeing the need for higher-level cognitive and community integration training, she helped to found the Mel Laine Society in 1985, which later became the Brain Injury Rehabilitation Centre. In 1988, health problems forced Audrey to give up her duties as executive director. She resigned as program director in 1995 following a major heart attack, but has continued to oversee Mel’s care and volunteer at ARBI one day a week.
In 1998, Audrey received an Honourary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Calgary. Other honours include the City of Calgary Citizen of the Year, Global Woman of Vision, induction in the Terry Fox Hall of Fame, the Sir Fredrick Haultain Prize for contributions to the humanities, the Government of Canada 125th Anniversary medal, the Brian Moore Volunteer Award from Canadian Brain Injury Coalition, and the Rotary International Paul Harris Award for humanitarian contributions to the peoples of the world. She is modest about her accomplishments, pointing to ARBI’s many volunteers, staff and benefactors over the years as equal partners in the Association. Those who know and work with her, however, understand the unique nature of her gift and the importance of her contributions.
Audrey’s pioneering work has inspired countless patients and volunteers to believe in what seems impossible and to strive for positive change. Due to her patience and determination, many Albertans now enjoy an improved quality of life and, once, again are involved in meaningful activities in their communities - Mel Laine included. She has encouraged health care practitioners to consider new approaches in the treatment of brain injuries, and her work at ARBI has led to the development of similar organizations across western Canada. Perhaps most importantly, Audrey’s achievements serve as an example of what can be achieved through determination and a belief in the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity.
Executive Director, The Alberta Order of Excellence