A signature laugh silenced

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By Raylyn Rollins

Donna Turrey and her daughter Leah, shining her trademark smile. (Courtesy of Donna Turrey)

By Raylyn Rollins

Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Mother Teresa – all world renowned influential people.

But not being famous does not mean a person is any less influential.

Leah Turrey was a common fixture around campus. With a cane, slow walk, big smile and a squeaky, infectious laugh, many people saw Leah around campus without even realizing who she was. They would see a clearly handicapped girl walking around slowly but surely.

However, what many people did not see was the person inside of Leah Turrey. The woman who had suffered a severe stroke when she was only 12 years old, who was blind in one eye, who needed upwards of 20 academic accommodations, yet still was determined to go to medical school to be a neurologist. This was the woman who, despite so many disadvantages, never seemed to get depressed or give up. This Leah Turrey is the one who touched the lives of the people she met.

Turrey had a normal childhood. She grew up with a brother, sister, mom and dad. She had no signs of illness, no headaches and no warning of what was to come.

Twelve-year-old Turrey suffered a stroke that left her severely weakened on her right side, blinded her in one eye and left her in a wheelchair. It was discovered that she had a rare brain malformation called AVM, or brain Arteriovenous Malformations.

AVM is an abnormal growth of veins in the brain that have the potential to clot, thus causing a stroke. A disease that already only affects less than one percent of the population, Turrey had the rarest form of AVM – the veins grew in the middle of her brain, making them inoperable. In fact, Turrey’s condition was so rare that no doctors in Riverside could treat her. She had to go to UCLA for all treatments, becoming her neurologist’s youngest – and ultimately longest living – patient.

The first stroke left Turrey paralyzed on her right side, without much hope for walking. Her vocal cords had shrunk, leaving her with a high-pitched, squeaky laugh earning her the nickname “Squeakers.” She was blind in one eye among other complications. However, Turrey had a will to succeed that kept her going.

Leigh Cordery of RCC Disabled Student Programs and Services knew of Leah’s will to carry on.

“When most people would hide away, she was just out there,” Cordery said.

When everything changed for Turrey after her stroke, she rejected the idea of home schooling and went to public school. When she was never expected to walk again, she took her first steps as she crossed the stage at her middle school promotion to a standing ovation.

Turrey continued on to high school where she took all regular classes. She graduated from Martin Luther King High School in Riverside in 2002.

She decided to go to RCC to continue her education. Although she needed academic accommodations including note takers – Turrey was right handed, the side that was weakened from her first stroke – and machines to enlarge texts, she steadily took classes. Despite math being her most difficult subject, Turrey wanted most of all to be a neurologist, which required 6 math classes.

“She was completely undaunted with the challenges,” Cordery said. “She wanted to learn so much.”

In the midst of math and science classes, Turrey took several dance classes as well.

The last week of September in the fall semester, Turrey dropped out of all of her classes to go back to rehab.

“She had decided to focus on her body,” her mother, Donna Turrey, said.

On Oct. 2, Turrey was found by her mother, collapsed on the floor at their home, right before her first day of rehab. Despite the chance of another stroke was almost nonexistent, Turrey suffered a second stroke. This time, it affected her left side, leaving her unable to swallow or speak beyond a simple “yes” or “no.”

Despite being so helpless, she kept a good sense of humor. The only way people could speak to her was through asking yes or no questions until the right one was reached, which, according to her mother, Leah found funny. She was laughing her distinctive laugh until the end.

She was relocated to UCLA where she was determined to pull through with as little help as possible, as she had done all of her life.

“Maybe that’s what helped her last as long as she did,” Donna Turrey said.

Leah Turrey passed away on Oct. 17.

At her funeral, white doves were released, something Leah had wanted for her wedding someday.

Now those she knew are left with a void once filled with Leah’s glowing spirit.

“She was always positive, always happy,” Donna Turrey said. “It wears off on everyone else.”

Even people at RCC miss Leah’s presence and inspiration.

“When we had trouble getting up in the morning, we would think about her,” Cordery said. “Always in my mind I can hear her laughter.”

In memory of Leah, the Turrey family leaves her cane by the door, a sign that always meant that Leah was home.

“I don’t think I’ll ever move it,” Donna Turrey said.

After 22 years on the earth, Turrey was “a complete success.”

Her laugh is no longer heard around campus and her slow walk cannot be seen, but her memory remains.

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