How one student found the will to persevere in the face of overwhelming loss

Kayla Leugner-Lavallee was used to challenges as a captain of the Pandas hockey team and dentistry student. But nothing prepared her for the hardest battle of her life.

University life is a time of hugely personal triumphs and tragedies with lasting consequences. In many ways, the first four of Kayla Leugner-Lavallee's seven years at the University of Alberta would prepare her for her own-by many measures devastating-event and its impact on her life.

The death of family members midway through her studies would call on all her inner strength, and some she didn't know she had, to cope with the loss and find her way to graduation.

"I always knew I wanted to be a dentist. I was good at sciences, but there's an artistry to it as well," said the 26-year-old, who graduates today with a doctor of dental surgery degree. She was also good at hockey, had been since she started playing at the age of eight, and knew she wanted to push her limits as much as she reasonably could.

Hugely ambitious, yet utterly sensible-"I was never Olympic team material but I could have a great university hockey career," she said-Lavallee applied to schools not just with terrific hockey teams, but stellar dental schools. "I was thinking long-term, so I talked to schools in the United States and Canada."

The Métis defenceman ultimately chose the U of A because it hit the mark on her criteria and allowed her to experience a new city-albeit one not too far from her home of Chestermere, 20 kilometres east of Calgary, though her father, mother and younger brother (by seven years) and sister (by 12 years) had moved to Strathmore in 2014. With the help of the Métis Scholars Award and an Indigenous Careers Award, she quickly settled into Edmonton and dove into her new routine.

A test of endurance

Lavallee's extremely busy future was well planned and, for the most part, seemingly straightforward: she would devote equal energy to taking undergraduate science courses until she qualified for the Dental Aptitude Test (DAT), and give hockey her all.

The latter entailed at least 20 to 25 hours of training, on ice six days a week, as well as trips every other weekend for games.

"I really loved the team atmosphere. The team is like your family away from family, especially at university. Everyone is going through the same stuff, figuring what you want to do with your life and accomplishing team goals," she said.

One of Lavallee's team goals was to win a national championship during her five years-the length of time students are eligible to play university sports-and during her third and fourth year, in pursuit of that dream, she became an alternate captain of the Pandas.

Come fourth year (with one western conference win under her belt), always thinking ahead, she decided to write her DAT, "if only for the experience." Not expecting to do well-many students need to take the rigorous test a few times-she was shocked when she got the letter of admission that summer.

Heading into her fifth year of hockey-as team captain and the yet-to-be-won national championship-and beginning the gruelling, mandatory schedule of a first-year dentistry student would be daunting to say the least.

"But I thought, how can I turn this down?"

A test of conviction

"My coaching staff and the dentistry faculty were incredibly supportive of me following my athletic and academic goals," said Lavallee.

Indeed, allowances were made for those occasions when the captain needed to leave town for games, and she did her best juggling the time-intensive commitments of hockey and first-year dentistry.

"It was not easy. It was not easy at all," she admitted.

Fortunately, all her years as a competitive athlete gave her some tools she needed to prevail in the classroom.

"As an athlete, I'd absolutely learned time management skills. But I'd also learned leadership. You discover how to work with many different personalities on a team and how to communicate with many different people. I knew what I'd learned would help me in dental school but would also serve me in my future career dealing with a variety of people in a dental clinic."

She'd also learned how to deal with pressure, and her innate desire to be a source of strength for others was emerging- a capacity she would end up needing much sooner than expected.

"I wanted to be the player the coach could lean on during games. I knew in dentistry I would be someone patients could come to and trust with their health concerns, and staff would look to for leadership."

Not only did Lavallee make it through the year academically-"My goal was to survive"-but she led the team to the national championships in her last year of hockey.

"We lost the game to Montreal, and it was an incredibly emotional day. As soon as I walked into the dressing room after, I took a deep breath and knew we could take the loss and hold our head high and be proud of what we accomplished."

Experiencing her last game was truly bittersweet. There was a ton of support for her from fans, players, friends and family.

"I'd seen my dad cry twice in my life at that point, and that was one of them," she said. "But I did feel a sense of closure. I was ready to move on to the next chapter in my life. Hockey had been a huge part of it, and I was sad but grateful, exhausted but invigorated."

Quite simply, she was looking forward to being free of stress to devote herself to her studies full-time for the last two years of her program.

But that was not to be.

A test of courage

Lavallee was at a friend's cottage on Pigeon Lake at the start of summer when she took a call from her grandfather, who was very upset. "He said that my grandmother, my brother and our dog had been in a car accident. That no one had made it."

She was crying and in such a state of shock that her friends, some Pandas team members, helped her get back home that night. It took a day for the news to reach her mother and father, who were on vacation with Lavallee's younger sister in a remote location.

"Obviously we were devastated. I felt, being an older sibling, it was my role to look after my parents and my little sister. I turned my focus to them."

She stayed with them that summer, each coping with the loss in their own way. "People say it's unhealthy to deal with grief internally. But that's what works for me." A big decision was weighing on her, though: should she return to school?

"I knew me, and I knew I needed to keep busy," she said, adding with tears in her eyes, "Markus would have wanted me to. He looked up to me. I remember he sent me a text after my final hockey game, telling me how proud he was of me that I was able to do that, and that he was hoping to do the same. I went back for him."

Faculty, already informed of her loss by a friend and classmate, encouraged her to come to them for any needs. The grief was all-encompassing and there were times during that year Lavallee could not concentrate in class.

But she relied on her classmates, former hockey mates and friends to help her either with a shoulder to cry on or reminders about schoolwork. She used the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry's Learner Advocacy & Wellness Services counselling, but after a few times felt she didn't need more.

"I think because of my sports, I have a tough skin. I knew how to handle adversity growing up in elite sports the way I did. It definitely helped a little bit."

She drove back every other weekend to be there for her family, and simply got by, keeping her head down and helping her family-with a stoicism she'd learned on the ice in the face of defeat.

The following summer, "It hit me a little more. So I did things I might not have so easily before. Like go away with friends spontaneously. It made me realize we don't know how much time we've got."

It also really sunk in how well-loved her brother was. "I can't tell you how many people would stop to tell me something amazing he did for them or how special he was," she said.

In her grief, Lavallee learned a few other things, like knowing when to ask for help.

"It's important not to be ashamed to ask for help. There were times I didn't want to be a burden on friends anymore, but that's what friends are for, and I knew I would be there for them if the tables were turned," she said.

Lavallee also realized just how much she loves dentistry, as she finished her third and final year-which "felt like a breeze," she admits after surviving the physicality of first year and the emotional toll of second year.

"I love helping people," she explained, citing a few examples of notes she received from patients in the School of Dentistry's Oral Health Clinic. "It was hugely rewarding and makes me happy that I pushed through what I did. I hope that I can reach half as many people as my brother did," she added.

A previous volunteer hockey coach in her Métis community, Lavallee hopes to keep giving back in many ways, inspired by her brother's example.

"People say a day doesn't go by when you don't think about a loved one who has passed, but it's true. As time has gone on, when I think about him I don't break down. Now the family will actually share a fond memory and smile as we continue the long journey of healing."

While Lavallee would like to own her own dental clinic someday, for now she's deciding on some associate positions, possibly splitting her time between urban and rural locations.

"The best advice I can give for someone who goes through something similar is to be true to yourself and dig deep to find out what you need. Even if you have others to take care of, don't forget about yourself after."