Natalia Francesca Elejalde-Ruiz
December 12, 1977 - January 29, 2017
At the age of ten, Natalia Elejalde- Ruiz began showing symptoms of a serious mental health disorder, including auditory and visual hallucinations, irritability and withdrawal. Her father, Eduardo Elejalde, as well as her mother, Vanessa Ruiz, and step-father, David Birenbaum, for years, didn’t know what was going on or how to help her. There was very little known about the underlying condition in children. There were no readily available experts or facilities to help cope with its effects that interfered with a young child’s schooling, emotional development, friendships, and caused serious disruption to family life. Their search for information resulted initially in a diagnosis of childhood psychosis by a childhood psychiatry specialist at Cornell University and, subsequently, led them to an NIH study on early childhood schizophrenia. After participating in this study, Natalia was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Notwithstanding these severe challenges, Natalia’s spirit and strength of character shone through. She was a very lively and social person. Her younger sister, Alexia, remembers her unapologetically bold fashion choices and fearlessness on the karaoke stage singing to her favorite artist, Madonna. She was also smart, determined, and wanted to grow as a person. At the age of 19, when Alexia left home to attend Brown University, Natalia also left home to become a resident of Merry Meadow Farm, a therapeutic residential program for people living with serious mental illness. Their approach combines psychiatric medication, therapy and a supportive living community. Natalia lived there for nearly 20 years, where with the constant support and love of her family, her condition improved greatly and she became a leader in her community.
Natalia’s experience at Merry Meadow transformed her life. She took the initiative to find a job in a local Walmart store where she worked for many years. This boosted her self-esteem, and she gradually became more and more independent. Given the combination of family support, community, employment and therapy, Natalia’s medications were gradually reduced, and she was living a fulfilling life. In the last year of her life, she was self-reliant enough to live in her own apartment.
Tragically and unexpectedly, in late January of 2017, Natalia died at the age of 39 from a pulmonary embolism following surgery to mend a broken ankle. The family renamed the foundation that Natalia's father had started in 2015 from the Myrtlewood Foundation to the Natalia Mental Health Foundation and is publicizing its efforts in her memory.
"Natalia's Story" is an excerpt from an article entitled "Family Foundation Raising Awareness about Schizophrenia: An Article About The Myrtlewood Foundation," published June 2017 by The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT in Neuroscience News. The family is deeply thankful.