A beautiful mind: Ellis Ross pushes through shifting landscape of memory loss

Written By Rob Shaw

“If people are thinking that I then became brilliant, and am now at genius levels, well, it didn’t happen.”

–Ellis Ross

Ellis Ross slides into the chair in his office with a sigh after a BC United caucus meeting at the legislature. He’s just spent 15 minutes briefing fellow MLAs on the complexities of Indigenous participation in natural resource projects. But within a few hours, he won’t remember any of it.

Ross continues to suffer the effects of a severe concussion he incurred after falling off his bike in a Kitimat park on Aug. 29.

The trauma has wreaked havoc on his short-term memory, leaving him unable to remember the names of people he’s known for years, conversations he had just hours ago and what he’s accomplished on any given day.

“I could remember what I had for breakfast before this accident,” he said. “But afterwards, I realize, whole days are gone.

“I’ve started keeping a diary. I’d write everything down that I did today. And it was hard, because I’d sit there labouring, just trying to put this together from the minute I woke up to late at night.

“And then I’d tell my wife, well, that was a pretty productive day. And she’d say, no, you didn’t do any of that today. You did that yesterday.”

Notes, reminders and every day is Friday

Ross returned to work this week to participate in the fall legislative session. But it’s clear things are nowhere near normal for the MLA from Skeena. 

He’s written himself countless notes and reminders about what’s supposed to be doing, and what he needs to know to get it done. 

Ross at his desk in the BC legislature. [Photo Chad Hipolito]

He deliberately leaves objects out all over the place, like his keys, so he’ll know where they are. 

His diary, which he updates throughout the day, is often his only window into what he actually did, who he talked to, and what he completed on any given day.

Perhaps most perplexing of all, since the accident, he thinks it’s Friday. Every single day.

“I just wake up and say wow Friday, man, what are we going to do this weekend? No, it’s Monday,” he said. “And then later on I’ll be, it is Friday right?”

Ross pointed to his phone. “I had to take this thing and click on it to keep reaffirming that it’s Wednesday.

“It kind of throws you way off schedule,” he added, shaking his head. “Way off balance.”

Workload manageable with colleagues and staff

The two-term MLA and former Haisla Nation chief said he’s actually finding the legislative workload do-able so far, because he’s surrounded by caucus colleagues, assistants and other staff who can help jog his memory.

But during an interview in his office, he illustrated, inadvertently, how difficult the situation can be.

“So right now, if you were to ask me what I did yesterday, well, I got on a plane, got off the plane, jumped on a plane to Victoria, got a rental car,” he said. 

Then Ross paused. The silence stretched on for several seconds. “And what did we do after that?” he muttered to himself. “That would have been, uh…”

More silence. Finally he let out an exasperated sigh.

I asked him if all this travel occurred on Monday, the same day that the legislature resumed.
“Oh that’s what it was — I came here!” Ross exclaimed. 

“Yeah. And then I got dropped off, ran to the back (of the legislature) for the announcements, I was too late, everybody was gone, I came in here and got in late for caucus. 

“See this is the thing, all it takes is one trigger, and it all falls in.

“I was actually thinking I got off the plane, I must have wanted to get the coffee, maybe I went to check in to the hotel and blah blah. But none of that happened.”

Long term memory, knowledge of Indigenous law, intact

Further confusing both Ross and everyone around him is the fact that his short-term memory problems don’t preclude him from giving detailed speeches, arguing the nuances of First Nations law, or briefing colleagues on his political files. 

Ross in the legislative chamber last year. [Photo Chad Hipolito]

“The other strange thing is that I’m part of the conversations, I offer insights, I listen to everybody, and I think I get to a great place by the evening,” he said. “And then it’s all gone.”

Doctors have told Ross that his long-term memory appears fine, but his short-term memory will take time to recover.

In the meantime, he admits to being frightened and concerned about the prospect of dementia.

“You can’t deny that you get a fear of this, especially because I have a lot of friends who are older, I’ve watched them lose their memory, I watched them in stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s,” he said. 

“So yeah, it’s in the back of your mind. Somebody pointed out to me that memory loss was part of getting older, and it could be signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s. And that kind of stuck with me, that one comment.”

‘I’ve got a new respect for brain injuries’

Still, Ross said he’s been surprised at the outpouring of good wishes. Legislative colleagues from all sides of the house have reached out to him, some sending flowers. Since going public to his local newspaper in late August, he said he’s received messages from across the country, and is often stopped on the street by people inquiring into his well-being.

“It’s quite touching,” he said. “I’ve got a new respect for brain injuries.”

Despite it all, Ross has managed to retain his sense of humour. He said while some people might bump their heads and suddenly become geniuses, that appears to have skipped him in his case.

“If people are thinking that I then became brilliant, and am now at genius levels, well, it didn’t happen,” he said. 

“I don’t have any incredible powers or mental abilities.”

But he is making his way through his injury one day at a time at the legislature. Which, considering what he’s been through, is a pretty incredible accomplishment in and of itself.