Romy Shiller (MA 1992, PHD 1999) strains to speak, throwing her whole head into every word. Once an able-bodied actress and academic, the fallout from a brain tumour and subsequent coma has left her confined to a wheelchair and struggling with basic movement. But Shiller, 43, has found a new voice through her passion for writing. She recently self-published her memoir, You Never Know, which she typed with “one bent finger.”
Intense headaches sent Shiller to a Toronto hospital in 2003, where she was told that she had a brain tumour. Doctors soon performed surgery to remove it. After an additional operation to drain fluids collecting in her brain, Shiller descended into a five-month coma. When she awoke, she was afflicted with Akinetic Mutism, a partial paralysis that made it difficult to speak or move. Shiller progressed slowly, first squeezing her mother’s hand and then blinking. Her first post-coma word was “no.” Before the coma, Shiller had earned both a master’s degree and doctorate in drama from U of T, studied voice at the Royal Conservatory of Music and performed “female to female drag” with The Greater Toronto Drag King Society.
You Never Know includes Shiller’s contemplations on pop culture and psychic phenomena, and traces her ongoing recovery, which includes daily physiotherapy and speech therapy. Shiller, who lives in Montreal – close to her family and aided by full-time caregivers – accepts where she is now. As she recently observed, “On the whole, I feel incredibly fortunate. My life could be very ordinary, which would be fine, but in fact it is extraordinary.”