Back from the Brink, She Still Lives and Hopes—The Story of Chelsea Ellis ’12

May 21, 2021

“Jesus gave me a choice: to die or to live. If I chose to live, he said he’d take care of me.”

So said the paralyzed Chelsea Ellis, 2012 Houghton graduate, by mouthing words that her assistants translated by reading her lips. And true to His word, as He always is, Jesus is using a number of in-person and virtual caretakers to do just that. The one-time Psychology student (who also had two minors) indeed lives, but in a sadly diminished way – as a quadriplegic who is ventilator dependent and who needs assistance to eat and communicate.

Chelsea is remembered as a lively, energetic, adventurous woman who set out to make a difference among refugees, a growing population in the Buffalo area. The Orchard Park native embarked on an 11-nation overseas missionary tour in 2013 to get a sense of non-American or Canadian life. She returned to Buffalo to start a single-woman career working with the marginalized population on Buffalo’s West Side, where many new immigrants are housed. Her role evolved to become their guide to unfolding life in America and to be a mentor in daily living. The task was big, but the 30-year-old met it with determination and gusto until a bizarre mishap in April 2020 ended it.

Scene of the car accident

“I believe Satan hates me,” she mouthed during a recent visit at her patio home in the Buffalo suburb of Alden where her rehabilitation creeps along, ever so slowly. An out-of-control Buffalo police car responding to a 911 call smashed into another vehicle and careened onto the sidewalk, striking the vivacious Chelsea who was walking with a friend. She was catapulted more than 50 feet, landing with severe bodily injuries and a fractured and misaligned neck. Barely alive, ambulance paramedics transported her to the Erie County Medical Center where, unresponsive, doctors and nurses fought against time and life itself to keep Chelsea from slipping into eternity. Her blood pressure fell requiring several vasopressor medicines to raise it back up, and many blood transfusions. She was unresponsive for a week.

As the one-year mark of this horrific and deadly event passed on April 15th, Chelsea has undergone numerous surgeries, specialized (and very expensive) treatment in Colorado and nerve transplants in New Jersey and has been visited by countless doctors. They’ve successfully stabilized this once-animated woman who, with close friend and Houghton grad Kate Balon (’12), enriched many a dining-hall conversations with laughter and nutty antics.

As I visited her bedside recently, and held her paralyzed hand, I prayed with this precious soul who was able only to communicate by difficult-to-understand ‘mouthing’ of words. Her eyes, now clear, bespeak of a longing for normalcy. I asked God to bestow ample strength on Chelsea to help her complete her lonely journey.

“You have a story to tell Chels,” I said. “You are in the middle of it and you have a long way to go. People need to hear your story of how you suffered and overcame, Chelsea. That’s your calling now.”

As one who believes that nothing of significance happens outside of God’s overarching sovereignty, the terrible and careless accident did not escape God’s intense notice, and that Chelsea’s gauzy and visionary ‘conversation’ with Jesus was genuine. I can testify that He does indeed love her deeply and is walking with her and her family through each painful step. As Jesus cried at Lazarus’ grave, I teared at Chelsea’s bedside trying to enter into her injured life, but only getting to the edge of that desert. She, however, is living in it. I can only peer from a distance and imagine – and pray.

Chelsea with Prof. Dan Minchen

Chelsea’s mother, Cindy Marino, and her brother Brandon Ellis and his wife Zhenya provide care 24/7. Like Chelsea, although with less severity, their lives are likewise completely refocused. Brandon, a software engineer, has started a Facebook page called “Chelsea’s Army” that provides updates and requests for help. Cindy, a physician’s assistant, has permanently moved from her Canandaigua, NY home to be the full-time caregiver for her daughter. And the immobilized Chelsea, tethered to a ventilator that’s supplying life-giving air through a tracheotomy, lies motionless nearby, grateful for the love and support but missing the zany college and post-college days that gave her fire in the breast for the dispossessed and unfortunate.

Her hope is for a miracle of recovery. Her prayer is that her friends are also praying and requesting the same thing: that God – through the Holy Spirit and using many intermediaries – will mercifully heal her. But her attorney in a published article in the Buffalo News said, ‘She will never walk again … she will never use her arms again.’* It is here that faith confronts reality with the outcome yet unknown.

As Easter 2021 came and went, Christian hope abounded. From countless sanctuaries in the USA and Canada, soaring hymns of new life rose toward heaven in praise and faith – longing for a day when things are set right, as Isaiah and Revelation proclaim. For Chelsea, she’s hoping to return from being the newly marginalized one. She’d like to again assist the truly marginalized and flash that attractive smile and sparkling eyes as they start their new American journey with her as a helper. Perhaps if she could tell her story, she could do just that.

Dan Minchen

About the Author

Daniel Minchen is a retired Houghton Associate Professor in Business and Communication.  He stepped back last year after a nearly 15-year teaching career.

Buffalo woman left paralyzed in police car crash files lawsuit, by Maki Becker, Sept. 10, 2020.  The Buffalo News

More about Chelsea’s struggle can be found at https://www.facebook.com/chelsea.ellis.18 and by searching on FB for Chelsea’s Army, a private group open to new members.