Elizabeth Wisniewski says she feels like she’s had three lifetimes squeezed into her 31 years: her happy Michigan childhood, the dark time between her mother’s death and leaving for college, and her life as it is today.
She is especially at peace in her current incarnation, she said: “Now I know that I am doing exactly what I am meant to do.”
Born and raised in the Forest Hills Public Schools district, she now makes her home in Santa Barbara, Calif., where she goes by Dr. Elizabeth Wisniewski. She is a chiropractor, and co-owner of her practice. She’s also blind.
The first thing you might notice about her, especially if you are meeting her via telephone, is that although she has been on the west coast for six years, her cell number still has a 616 area code.
“I’ve had this number for 12 years,” she said, with an unmistakeable California drawl her family still teases her about, and a laugh she lets loose with often. Given that very little in her life is a result of inertia, maybe keeping her Michigan area code is also a way to stay connected.
The daughter of a pair of local educators, Wisniewski attended Pine Ridge Elementary, Central Middle School and Central High. She was a straight-A student throughout.
“My mom really pushed me,” she recalled. “Every day, before and after school, she had me do my times tables. … She would literally say, ‘I want you to do your 7 to 70s right now, go.’ ”
There’s that laugh again. Then Wisniewski quickly recited: “7, 14, 28, 35, 42, 49 … She would give me books to read and tell me to highlight the words I didn’t know, then write them out and look them up.
“It was kind of intense,” she conceded, “ but it helped cultivate the person I became.”
When Wisniewski was in third grade, her mother, Diane, a special education teacher first at Collins Elementary, then Thornapple and Central Woodlands elementaries, was diagnosed with breast cancer. The disease went into remission, but returned three years later. In 1999, when Elizabeth was in ninth grade, her mother died.
“She taught until a month or two before she passed away,” Wisniewski recalled. “She was very dedicated to her students.”
That loss was made more difficult given by the fact that Wisniewski had been losing her eyesight since she was very young.
“I was just an angry teenager,” she said. “It was hard enough being a teenager, let alone losing so much of my sight and my mother.”
“When someone tells me ‘You can’t do that,’ I’m like ‘Yeah, well, I’m going to’”
A routine eye exam when she was entering kindergarten showed an abnormality in her retina, the layer at the back of the eye where visual images are formed. It took nearly a year before the diagnosis: familial exudative vitreoretinopathy, or FEVR. It is a sometimes severe genetic disease whose symptoms must be treated one at a time, often with surgery. There is no cure.
From Pain to Healing Herself and Others
Wisniewski’s first surgery was in the first grade. Between the ages of 6 and 24, she would have 30 procedures. She was often in pain.
Kelly Hill, her friend since kindergarten, remembers being in Brownies together. And the time Wisniewski gave her a shark’s tooth necklace when she returned from a family vacation during first grade. After that, Hill regularly went on vacations with the Wisniewskis. The girls looked for seashells on the beach in Florida and South Carolina, and put lemon juice in their hair to lighten in the sun at the family cottage near Newaygo.
Wisniewski’s gradual vision loss and her family’s continual hope that the next surgery would be the last one “was just always a part of our friendship,” Hill recalled.
After her mother’s death, Wisniewski’s method of rebellion was to attend the University of Montana “to get away from everyone I knew.” She graduated in 2006 with a bachelor of arts degree in environmental studies and political science, thinking she might go into environmental law.
Shortly after, a corneal transplant that was supposed to give her back a bit of vision instead resulted in more loss. She contemplated returning to Michigan, but after her first chiropractic adjustment she got immediate relief from the near constant pressure in her eyes.
On her third visit, she told the chiropractor she thought she might be meant to go into that field. “I said ‘I don’t think I can really become a doctor because I can’t see,’ ” she recalled. “He told me, ‘That shouldn’t stop you.’ “
In 2007, Wisniewski completed a 1,300-hour medical massage program and received national board certification in manual therapy. She became fascinated with anatomy and physiology, and continued her lifelong streak of straight-A’s.
She researched graduate schools, and chose California when she learned that in some states it was legal to turn away visually impaired students.
“I was upset for, like, five minutes, then I thought, ‘OK, I’ll move to California,’ “ she said.
In 2012 she earned a doctor of chiropractic degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic in San Jose. While there she served on a number of national chiropractic organizations and lobbied on chiropractic and other health-related issues.
“People have asked how I can be a chiropractor when I can’t see. I use my hands. When I practice yoga or adjust a patient, I close my eyes because it brings me deeper with that person.
“When someone tells me ‘You can’t do that,’ I’m like ‘Yeah, well, I’m going to.’ ”
Early Signs of Success
Hill, her friend since childhood, said she remembers Wisniewski as understandably angry in her teens after losing her mother, “but I never doubted she would be successful. She was determined even then, and her charisma drew people to her.”
Hill, who now works at East Tennessee University, recently got engaged and has asked Elizabeth to be her maid of honor. “I wouldn’t want anyone else by my side,” she said.
Cindy Urban was Wisniewski’s seventh-grade math teacher. Now a counselor at Forest Hills Eastern High, Urban remembers her former student as “wonderful to have in the classroom.”
“She was losing her sight but still able to see textbooks,” Urban said. “Her perseverance was phenomenal. If you had looked in the classroom you would not have picked her out as the one who was struggling. She held herself to high standards.”
And she always had plenty going on. Wisniewski swam competitively for 12 years and was on the high school crew team. She played flute in band and marching band.
Today, besides her busy chiropractic practice, Wisniewski recently completed training to become a certified yoga instructor, and plans to open her own studio. She’s also a kickboxing and organic food buff, and is “obsessed with good coffee,” she admitted. “I plan trips and conferences around organic coffee.”
Those trips sometimes include returning to Michigan to see family, including her two younger sisters, Sarah, 28, and Jennifer, 25. Their father, Fred Wisniewski, is director of special education at ForestHills Public Schools. He and his wife, Cecily Hinkle-Wisniewski, have seven children between them. “We’re like the Brady Bunch,” Wisniewski said.
She also spends time “trying to embrace my other senses.” She lives near the beach and goes there often, shops by feel for beads and makes her own jewelry.
Wisniewski has been published in professional periodicals and has been an inspirational speaker at various wellness conferences. She currently is a director on the board of the Santa Barbara chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, and her business recently received a Spirit of Entrepreneurship Award from the county of Santa Barbara.
A recurring theme of her writing and speaking is how to turn challenges into assets.
“I lost my eyesight,” she said, “but gained a vision for myself and for the world.”