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March 27th, 2012
08:00 AM ET

Human Factor: TBI and the healing power of art

Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. This week, we introduce you to a journalist and artist, who shares her story of how creating art helped  her overcome the trauma following a traumatic brain injury (TBI).

“WHACK’ed … then everything was different” was me - eight years before it became the title of my exhibit. I was whacked while bicycling back from work by a red speeding car. Life has been different ever since and art became an integral part of my recovery and my identity.

I started painting portraits of traumatic brain injury survivors to raise awareness about TBI. I selected people from various walks of life: Trisha Meili, “the Central Park Jogger”; Troy Aikman and Pat Lafontaine; Keith Richards and George Clooney; TV news reporter Bob Woodruff, to illustrate the diversity of people affected by TBI.  More importantly, I wanted to show examples of brain injury survivors who moved on to have full, productive lives. I hope the portraits offer inspiration to those recently injured: kinship and identity with such icons is a powerful emotion, encompassing pride, pleasure and self-compassion, all of which are in short supply during the rehabilitation process.

For the first couple of years after my accident I was so overwhelmed, fragile and frightened that I could not comprehend what had happened to me, much less what TBI was all about. I gradually relearned to walk, graduating from a walker, to crutches, to a cane and to my own two legs. Yet it was only after I understood what I faced that I became an active partner in my recovery and truly began to heal. I believe information and knowledge was empowering.

Questions about ongoing symptoms are routinely answered by: “It’s to be expected, you have a TBI.” While it might be necessary and comforting early on, at some point I needed to truly understand what had happened to me. My husband and I researched everything we could on TBI and asked questions of everyone. The truth was often painful to reckon with. But the more I asked, the more I knew, and the more I knew, the more amazed I was about how the brain functions or, in my case, did not function! With knowledge, I became more active in my cognitive rehabilitation.

It was a long and excruciating process: I suffered debilitating headaches, having to wrap my head with ice packs for hours. I crashed hard from cognitive fatigue and swore every day that I couldn’t do it any more. But I did. With the kindness, care and guidance of my neuropsychologist, it gradually became an incredible adventure! Together we retrained my brain to process numbers, to retrieve verbal information, to recall items from short-term and long-term memory, to track and commit sequences to memory, to hold and articulate thoughts

When I was halfway through the portrait series, I developed a sense of urgency as news that U.S. military service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan revealed high incidences of TBI among them, now estimated at 40%. I felt strongly that their rehabilitation and re-integration was going to be a challenge for which, as a nation, we needed to be prepared. I became focused on the need for education about TBI symptoms and treatments, for individuals with TBI as well as their families and communities. From that point, the portraits had the mission to travel the country to initiate discussions, forums and debates about TBI and to clearly tell people, that healing and recovery does happen.

As for my own healing, I had to work through the existential terror, anguish and despair of not knowing who I was anymore, of having to contend with a person I did not know, could not count on and did not like - the new me in all her pale splendor! There were many compensatory techniques to learn and practice. I still use them every day and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. Like hidden scaffolding they became part of who I am, imperceptible to the world, yet I could not function without them. And, yes, I still crash when I ask my brain for a sustained and prolonged effort and will undoubtedly crash when finished writing this blog.

Art played a tremendous role in my recovery. To my great surprise art ended up redefining who I was. When I painted I did not feel pain and did not have a traumatic brain injury: thoughts, decisions and actions flowed seamlessly from one to another, just like my brain had functioned pre-injury. It quickly became addictive. Now, it is my life.

TBI is an invisible and life long illness that disrupts the metabolic, social and psychological equilibrium of an individual. The key to regaining control is education about the illness, and long-term rehabilitation of the injured brain. It is not easy as my personal account show. But with patience and determination and the right person to guide you, it is achievable - as the people portrayed in this series demonstrate.

As a footnote, I want to point out the power of using positive words:

I did not suffer a TBI, I sustained a TBI.
I am not a victim, I am a survivor.
I am not afflicted by TBI, I am affected by TBI.
I do not accept my disability. I acknowledge it and consider every aspects of it to learn from it, conquer and move on 🙂

The following resources provide more information about TBI:

www.biausa.org/tbi-portrait-project

http://msktc.washington.edu/tbi www.brainline.org

www.braininterrupted.org


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.