By Kelly Houlahan
The sound of excited talking and scraping stools filled my ears as I entered the coffee shop in downtown Ottawa. It had been decorated red and gold for the season; it was the first day of Starbucks’ annual launch of holiday drinks. Taking my place in line, I scanned the room for her, but she wasn’t there yet.
This was good; I wasn’t ready. The line moved quickly, although it was almost at the door. It was strange that I was feeling so anxious. My feet shifted forward as the line inched closer to the baristas and my mind began to wander.
I have known Hélène Campbell for six years. We met through our part-time job at Dairy Queen, and she was accepted into the employee family almost immediately. She skipped right through the hazing of the trainees; cleaning the garbage cans, making Blizzard after Blizzard, and being largely ignored by the senior staff, and was inducted into the inner circle. I remember staying out late, drinking Tim Hortons coffee in the parking lot outside work and finding random selfies from her on my phone, the most memorable one being from Halloween when she dressed up as a Rastafarian.
Shifts with her were the best, because you never really knew what to expect. Everyone adored her; she was fun, sassy and sometimes a little crazy. She eventually left after almost three years, for a full-time position at the Riverside Hospital, but everyone at work still talks about how much they miss her and how awesome she was to work with.
Then the bad news came. Hélène was sick. Very sick. Looking back, I think we were all in denial about how grave the situation was. Since she’d left DQ, we’d all started seeing her less. I think we all had difficulty imagining someone who was so full of life, so sick. How could something so bad happen to someone so good? She, with the help of friends, had created a video that put a lot of things into perspective for the rest of us. She needed a double lung transplant, and a significant amount of money to be able to get it, since she had to move to Toronto while she was on the waiting list. The news of a surprise fundraiser for Hélène crept through the grapevine, so everyone at work began to brainstorm; there was no way we were going to stand idly by. We turned our tip jar into a donation jar. Our tips tripled on the first day as people heard about what we were doing. We approached the owners of the store, and they agreed to match what the store raised for her on the Saturday before the fundraiser. The number of people who came in that Saturday, just to donate, was amazing. It seemed like the whole community came out to support her. When we handed Hélène a cheque for $7110, everyone cried.
The community had raised enough money for Hélène. She moved to Toronto so that she could be ready at any given moment for the transplant. Her health was deteriorating quickly though. I remember thinking that her end could come at any moment. But it didn’t. I was getting ready to go to work on Good Friday (April 6th) of 2012. I checked my Facebook wall and her blog before I left (I usually did this for any updates) and got one of the best surprises of my life: it had finally happened—Hélène was on her way to surgery. I cried for almost an hour. By the time I finally got to work I figured I was all cried out. But I joined my red-eyed co-workers in more tears.
Such is the magic of Hélène. To know her is to love her. I’ll admit I haven’t seen Hélène since the months following her surgery. I’ve seen her on television (her famous dance with Ellen DeGeneres, and many other appearances), read articles covering her progress and have been stalking her blog. I know she’s busy, she’s back working at the hospital, working for the Give2Live campaign, starting up her own business and writing a book. I can’t imagine how she juggles all of her responsibilities.
I ordered my drink and walked to the only empty seat in the house; an uncomfortable looking barstool and tiny table. I took my seat and pulled out a pen and a piece of paper. I kept thinking how strange it was that I found myself nervous for this interview. There was no way that fame had changed the Hélène I knew. My mind wandered again, dreading how awkward the next hour would be. Ten minutes later she pulled up in her car and got out. She was taller than I remember.
As soon as she walked over to the table, I knew that I had been nervous for no reason. She definitely stood taller than she had before the surgery but she still had the same wide smile as she walked in, the same excitement in her eyes, the same joy that always seemed to be present in her demeanour.
After she asked me how I was doing, what I’d been up to and if there was anything new and exciting in my life, I was finally able to turn things into something about her.
“You’re totally taller, by the way.”
“I am taller!” she said with excitement, “It’s actually a significant difference [from before], and you know why? I have the right size lungs now.”
She went on to explain that because her lungs had hardened, it forced her to slouch so that she could take full breaths. Now that her lungs are the right size, she is able to stand straight. “I don’t know how we missed this,” she said.
I went into this interview with Hélène thinking that I’d be asking her what’s new and exciting in her life, but I quickly realized that was not the way to go with this. So many stories have been written about her, it seemed silly to do another covering the things people already know about. Those stories don’t really reflect Hélène as a person, only her public persona.
Hélène is the most compassionate person I know. She puts others before herself and in conversation, she always turns it around so that it can be about you. She is genuinely interested in everything that you say. It took all of two minutes to figure out that she really hasn’t changed.
“I have seen life, and I thought the transplant would change my entire character, but it doesn’t change who you are,” she says. “People say to me, ‘You’ve changed, Hélène’. And I ask them, ‘Have I really?’” Laughs. “Cause deep down inside I’m still that cray-cray girl who will dance, make up songs and be inappropriate sometimes. Except now I have less of a filter sometimes. I’m still me."
This pulls me up short. She is still her. I have thought about her as a public figure since her transplant, not as the girl I know. How tiring this all must be for her.
“You know, everyone’s been doing stories about me, but I just want you to ask me what my favourite colour is,” she says. “It’s green, by the way.”
I put aside my interview questions, and we began to just talk. This is the way Hélène is. You can never capture her character by asking a set list of questions. You need to sit down with her and reminisce. She fills every conversation with anecdotes and jokes. It’s why she’s such a wonderful speaker.
We talked work, love, passions (both new and old) and stories from our pasts. She has been with her boyfriend for over a year and is crazy about him. She is overwhelmingly busy, but she is learning to cope with it. It struck me how often she brought the subject back to her family. There was a family-based anecdote for almost every topic we explored. To her, family really is everything.
“We’re closer than we’ve ever been. The fame would make me feel awful sometimes… Because I have other siblings, I have other family members that have went through what I went through. When you’re watching someone go through something, it’s completely different than going through it yourself. I know my siblings, they are just helpers. We’d show up to events and people would approach me and focus all their attention on me and my story.”
When Hélène went down to meet Ellen DeGeneres, she wanted to honour her family more than anything, but there wasn’t enough time allotted for her to do so. In her words, “I wanted the world the world to know how much my family means to me, but the world doesn’t want to know. Justin Beiber did a great job, but it’s my family that are my heroes.”
This is the Hélène I know: The young woman who sends goofy selfies and is completely selfless, no matter how many times she says otherwise.
I know it may be a while before I see Hélène again. I know how busy her life is, but I consider Hélène to be a life-long friend. Even if years may go by without us seeing each other, we’ll be able to pick things up exactly where we left them