There are devoted students — and then there is Michael Francis.
Lying on the road, badly injured after being hit by a car, all the barely conscious engineering student could think about was the year-end final exam he was due to write in a short while.
“All I thought was, ‘I’ve got to get to class,’” recalls Francis.
Fighting for his life
That was 2014, and as the then first-year UCalgary student was about to discover, there would be no going to class or writing exams for a long time to come.
Francis, who’d suffered severe traumatic brain injury when his head hit the pavement, would spend weeks in ICU at Foothills Hospital surrounded by devastated family members as he fought for his life. Through multiple surgeries and extensive rehabilitation, he would eventually regain the ability to perform basic activities of daily living and learn how to walk again.
After four months in the hospital, the 21-year-old accepted that going back to school was still another 12 months of recovery away. During this time, he would tackle the challenges of training his brain to think and learn again.
“I just wanted to get back to my life, and continue with the things I was excited about, like my degree,” says Francis.
“I wanted to finish what I had started.”
Convocation caps a long journey of recovery
Francis calls his close-knit family his inspiration in school and life, from his parents who are IT and communications professionals to the successful engineers he calls sister and brother-in-law. But it will be Francis who does the inspiring on Nov. 10, 2022.
That’s the day, eight-and-a-half years after that awful car collision, when Francis will walk across the stage to collect his parchment as a graduate of the Schulich School of Engineering.
For those who don’t know Francis, the only visible sign of the long journey from recovery to graduation is the cane he’ll use as he convocates.
A paralyzed foot is one lasting reminder of that terrible day in 2014, along with permanent implants in his brain and leg, peripheral blindness, and a sense of smell that is only now starting to return.
Forgiveness and moving forward
It’s a testament to the patience and kindness of the future engineer that he shows no resentment to the car driver who struck him as he crossed a road near the university, in a lit-up pedestrian zone.
“I was on my way to the second-last final of my first year, and I was crossing the street and I got smoked by the car,” he remembers.
The driver was charged by police, but Francis is quick to explain that the person was distracted and distressed over a medical appointment: “It was just a bad situation for them.”
Over time, Francis says he moved past the blame and anger. But in the days and months following the crash, he could only hope for a future as he pored over his textbooks from his hospital bed.
Francis recounts how a personal visit from Schulich Dean Bill Rosehart during one of those moments was especially hopeful and inspiring.
Francis was determined to finish his engineering degree, even as he learned to deal with his injuries, including “living with a prefrontal cortex that operates like a Windows 95 firewall,” he jokes.
Helping others along the way
His experience in the hospital and his ongoing recovery helped Francis steer an empathetic path through undergraduate studies.
Francis has Indigenous heritage through his father, a member of the Kahkewistahaw First Nation in Saskatchewan, that gives him an awareness of the unique challenges Indigenous students may face. Empowered with this knowledge and empathy, Francis chose to become a peer mentor for the Indigenous Student Access Program, helping students wanting to pursue engineering.
In addition to his full-time studies and volunteer activities on campus, Francis also serves at the Alcove Centre for the Arts, which aims to increase accessibility to the arts. He was part of the winning team at the Neuro Nexus 2020 Hack-a-thon for designing the LibraBoard, a low-cost, portable, training and assessment device for seniors with balance issues.
Earlier this year, Francis was on another winning team at the Schulich Engineering Design Fair, this time for the Dexpert rehab and monitoring device, a wearable sensor system intended for stroke and brain injury survivors to facilitate at-home rehabilitation.
An inspiring journey aided by family
Now pursuing his master’s degree in software engineering, Francis credits his family for getting him through the crash, in a team effort that saw mom and his sister leaving their jobs to be at his side.
As he prepares to collect that hard-earned parchment, Francis says he hopes his journey inspires others.
“Don’t ever lose hope — learn to reframe your problems so it’s not doom and gloom, and look for the positive.”