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:


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


soundoff (115 Responses)
  1. RealGlaird

    Amazing. A positive, concrete, factual, article published on CNN, that leads people to 'real' hopeful objectives. How refreshing. And better yet, I did not find that classic "Well we all know there is not hope, so its okay to just lie to yourself and try and believe the lie.". The author challenged the status quo, took on her obstacles, and produced real tangible positive results.

    March 27, 2012 at 12:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Sandy Western

    Glad I found this post. I only wish I could find the help my brother needs and deserves to deal with his TBI. 60 days into our ordeal and still no rehab services, he is talking, moving, singing and able to get himself out of bed but because he has no insureance there is little to no help for him.

    March 27, 2012 at 15:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jo-Anne Vienneau

      My heart goes out to you and your brother. Stick with it. He may not be able to show it now, but you are his strength, his advocate. Rehab once started takes quite a while and very hard work. Keep you strength up too. Eat and sleep well! If you want to chat anytime I will answer as quickly as I can. Usually within a couple of hours.

      March 28, 2012 at 11:24 | Report abuse |
    • Jo-Anne Vienneau

      My heart goes out to you and your brother. Stick with it. He may not be able to show it now, but you are his strength, his advocate. Rehab once started takes quite a while and very hard work. Keep you strength up too. Eat and sleep well! If you want to chat anytime I will answer as quickly as I can. Usually within a couple of hours. Miracles do not have to be on a grand scale, even the smallest things are so important.

      March 28, 2012 at 11:25 | Report abuse |
    • smweers

      I'm so sorry that your brother and family have to go through this ver difficult and long journey. It is a crime that people cannot receive care without insurance for this when early and intensive therapy makes a huge difference in long term recovery. Wouldn't he qualify for medicaid? I would talk with the hospital social workers to see if the application process can be started. It's crazy not to pay to rehab someone initially because those that don't get rehabbed will probably end up on SSi in the future. Some rehab facilities have benevolent funds, though you want to make sure they specialize in brain injury and are not just a nursing home "rehab". There is so much you can do yourselves as well and so much information available to start the process yourselves. There are plenty of exercises, games, make your own products available that can be done at home as well. It's a very long slow process but worth every minute if you can pour yourselves into it now. I don't regret one minute of the time that I spent on advocating for my son, doing extra physical therapy beyond his prescribed treatments, playing games, doing puzzles etc with him. He now is able to hold a job and live independently after a severe TBI and fractured neck. Hang in there and you are in my prayers. It so frustrates me when people say we have the best health care system in the world, it means nothing if you can't access it.

      March 28, 2012 at 22:06 | Report abuse |
    • eva68

      Although you have no resources to help him, I hope that you have the time. I have a soon survivor (11 years now). Read the links, learn what you can do. TBI rehab happens fast in the first 90 days, so you better get to it. Then it is an ongoing process.

      March 29, 2012 at 06:19 | Report abuse |
    • Greg

      Dear Sandy – I work for the Brain Injury Association of America as the Director of Consumer Services. I have worked in brain injury rehabilitation programs prior to coming to the Brain Injury Association. You can contact me via e-mail at info@biasua.org. Maybe I can help direct you to a helpful resource in your area. I am very sorry to hear about your brother's injury.

      March 29, 2012 at 09:59 | Report abuse |
  3. austin


    March 27, 2012 at 17:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Karen Alkalay-Gut

    What a helpful article! Taking a measure of control of recovery through the arts can help innumerable people "survive" through innumerable "sustained" injuries and diseases..

    March 28, 2012 at 05:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Dave

    I also sustained a TBI. This article is fantastic. I as well have dealt with the recovery and healing. I as well am a survivor..

    March 28, 2012 at 10:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Dixie Coskie

    Never, ever give up hope! Beautiful article!
    As an added resource please check out my site and newly released book Unthinkable: A Mother’s Tragedy, Terror, and Triumph through a Child’s Traumatic Brain Injury. http://www.dixiecoskie.com

    March 28, 2012 at 13:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Emily

    A very good article! "Hope and faith, you have to have hope and faith." -Gabrielle Giffords. Though I want to point out, that on the sign for the Gabrielle Giffords painting, it says "Gifford". Gabrielle's last name is Giffords.

    March 31, 2012 at 13:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. jackie goodwin

    I am so happy that you had this on the news, I suffered a traumatic brain injury from being ejected from a vehicle months in a coma and broken back I survived through facebook I started a group on head injurys and found many more out their I have connected with hundred of people from around the world, one lady Annie Ricketts who had a dream to raise awareness on traumatic brain injurys she made a video for youtube Fallen through the net I am one that did with the loss of friends, family and the doctors I was left to heal myself, she has started a Global picnic for June for people from all over the world to have their own personal picnic on raiseing awareness on TBI's I will have mine in Waxahatchie Texas, for Annie and many of us I would be honored and greatful if you showed Annies video for all of us who suffer from a TBI.

    March 31, 2012 at 18:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. sheral

    It becomes a part of your life that you will never be able to shake, but takeit as a positive thing, your experience in life is very much different; my experience happened 38 years ago and i am still trying to overcome obstacles inlife, but I am a strong warrior, if i really newthe right routes i would do more, there are so many wonderfulpeople in my life who have helped me so much, your life is that of a puzzle and each day, each week, each month, and each year becomes a different peice needed inthe puzzle.so for allthe children inlife who experience TBI remember .never ever give up on your dreams you can do anythingyou want to it just take longer inlife, your job onthis world is not completed, never give up

    April 1, 2012 at 02:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. jamie

    The MSKTC.washington.edu website you listed is absolutely fantastic! The following factsheets have helped me better than any one understand what hapened to me. Everyone, click on these, really.

    * Understanding TBI, Part 1: What happens to the brain during injury and in the early stages of recovery from TBI?
    * Understanding TBI, Part 2: Brain injury impact on individuals’ functioning
    * Understanding TBI, Part 3: The recovery process
    * Understanding TBI, Part 4: The impact of a recent TBI on family members and what they can do to help with recovery

    There are more subjects, all of them so well done! A true gem. Thanks Eliette!

    April 1, 2012 at 18:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Teresa Mcpherson

    Thank you so much for your video. I to am a brain injury survivor.This is my 10 year aniversary.Mine always seems different because mine was not an automobile accident but a ruptured brain anyeuresym.I have struggeled so hard with my brain injury over the years.Fortunately physically I made it very well except for the exhaustion,headaches,and fatigue.I wasn't aware that it would be a lifetime journey.I have read everything I could get my hands on about TBI,yet seem to find nothing in my surrounding are which is Tennessee.I have cried so much that I have no tears left and not many feelings either.Even though I look fine to everyone physically,mentally I am spent.I have a nice home,but have no realatives to speak of and live alone with my little yorkie Mazy.The hardest part is finding me.I lost me that day and can't seem to find anyone or anything to help me.I have always been very independent and vibrant,but since my surgery I am a shell.If anyone could please help me find some kind of help of imformation please let me know.I am white female and just turned 55 this March..I so desperately need to find help in this area.All my friends just tell me to get over it,so now it has left me alone all the time..I know that depression comes with it,but I can't take any of the meds,they make me very sick and I feel a lot worse when I take them and I have tried them all.I know I could get better if I just had one person that could steer me in the right direction.I don't want to give up..Thank you so much for letting me post..I hope everyone has someone to help them go thru this devastating injury.. Teresa

    May 13, 2012 at 10:21 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Oscar

      Hello Teresa,

      How about contacting Greg from the Brain Injury Association of America. He answered a post earlier and offered his help to someone else having difficulties finding resources, help etc... In case you can't find his post, I have copied it for you:

      Dear Sandy – I work for the Brain Injury Association of America as the Director of Consumer Services. I have worked in brain injury rehabilitation programs prior to coming to the Brain Injury Association. You can contact me via e-mail at info@biasua.org. Maybe I can help direct you to a helpful resource in your area. I am very sorry to hear about your brother's injury.

      The Brain Injury is there for you and there might be a chapter where you are. Do email Greg!

      May 28, 2012 at 13:22 | Report abuse |
  12. Joe Metzler

    Hello everyone. I am a T B I survivor from Sept 1997 playing high school football. The first game of the year I hit a kid so hard I knocked out my own contact lense. Had been having reall bad headaches after that. The second game I got hit by an opponent. down I went. I was life flighted to hospital and had surgery. week in a coma and 3 months there. I came Home, Recovered Very well, Graduated with my high school class in 1998, then Graduated from College after that! I was working a full time job, now I just work part time. I go to church every week since my injury. I just need to tell you all to give it Time! Patience and time, anything will heal. Keep the Faith and love you all!


    May 29, 2012 at 13:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Jeanne

    My Son is in his late 30s Had tbi in feb of 2012 we are in June 2012.. He is doing well. Now he is i n anursing home Such horro there. He was going strong now insuranse sends him to a nursing home that helps tbi. Well so they say. He has been being avaluated for over a week. Come on.I do not think he will progreess but regrees. I am sick over this.Are there great places in Mas. he has been in spaulding insurance is gone for that.That saulding is Fab.Anything like that around?

    June 24, 2012 at 16:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Jeanne

    Continued My 30 something yr old son. We thought he would Die no chance no walking . he is breathing on his own talking but some times whispers. He is So Brave my hero. He is waiting for his feeding tube to be pulled eating every thing. then it is walking so he can do most anything. We are 2 big families. Thank God. He doesn't say much but when he does it is powerful. So 4 months how much longer for him to walk. ? His Mom

    July 1, 2012 at 15:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Belinda Best

    My husband (Shaun Best), a survivor of 41 cognitive challenges/brain injuries, is a strong advocate for those with cognitive challenges. He knows first hand the emotional, psychological, behavioral challenges, etc., allowed by harsh terminology,, i.e., disabled, retarded, handicapped, etc., we use in a humane society to confine individuals. The reason for using challenges is it is more humane than the definition of injury. He has been working since 1978 at the age of 12 to encourage our leaders to promote the benefits of each individuals' potential.

    He activates, demonstrates, educates, initiates, motivates, stimulates, & validates that some cognitive challenges may be conquered. I wanted you to know of his success over his challenges. He has been nominated for the following awards over the years: Robert L. Moody Prize for Distinguished Initiates in Brain Injury Rehabilitation & Research, Joseph P. Kennedy Award, Use your Life Award of Oprah Winfrey, etc.


    He displays the power of positive thinking a human factor of success.

    Respectfully, Mrs. Belinda Best

    July 8, 2012 at 06:57 | Report abuse | Reply
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    July 8, 2012 at 15:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Randy

    It's important that articles about TBI Survivors still be written, most Americans don't think about it. The statistics of incidents of TBI are off the chart compared to Cancer, MS, and HIV. I too am a Survivor of TBI, this November will be my 29th Anniversary of Surviving a catastrophic TBI. I survived being shot twice in the head when I was 16 years old, I'm 44 now. TBI isn't like a disease you can take pills for or a simple injury like a broken arm that'll heal in 6 weeks. It's a life altering moment that thrusts you into an entirely different arena, life or death. I struggled for years dealing with the damage to my right temporal lobe and the scarring from a depressed skull fracture. I acknowledge I'm fortunate to have a second chance at life and I've used the pain to drive me forward. I managed to graduate from high school with my class, but I was a walking train wreck. I received help through rehabilitative services and eventually went to college and graduated with honors. But emotionally and psychologically I was beyond devastated. I used to yell and scream at God for allowing this to happen to me until I realized he let me learn strength and endurance through the TBI's aftermath. I had planned on joining the Military out of High School but was told because of my TBI, I,"couldn't even be DRAFTED!!" Instead, I pursued a career in Law Enforcement and have now graduated three different law enforcement academies. I encourage other TBI Survivors to never, never, give up, healing takes time. Succeeding in life post-TBI is a challenge but not impossible.

    July 31, 2013 at 14:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Randy

    Also, I went back and proved the Army recruiters wrong, I enlisted in the Army Reserves at 37 years old in 2005. We were in a time of war in Iraq in 2005 and I was given another chance to acheive a life long dream that was stolen from me due to someone else's negligence. I'm now coming to a close with 8 years served in the Army Reserves, and I did it with a TBI! I now try to be a vocal advocate for TBI Survivors, in particular our men and women in uniform who sustained a TBI in the line of Duty. TBI doesn't discriminate, it strikes any and all races, skin colors.

    July 31, 2013 at 15:06 | Report abuse | Reply
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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.