A maze and contrasting colors
For Steve Brown Jr., these are some of the things that illustrate what it's like living with a traumatic brain injury.
"The maze represents the struggle to re-learn to walk, talk and swallow. It also represents my new 'normal,'" Steve wrote last month while working on a project at the monthly Brain Injury Support Group he attends at Gundersen Health System. "The contrasting red and blue [sides of the mask] represent my old and new 'normal.'"
Steve recently painted the symbols on a plain white mask as part of a national campaign called Unmasking Brain Injury, which aims to promote awareness of the prevalence of brain injury and give survivors a voice and the means to educate people about what it's like to live with a brain injury, among other things.
"Every person has a story about what their brain injury means to them," says Andy Laack, physical therapist and co-leader of the support group. "But their recovery is often masked. What they're fighting and the difficulties they have from their brain injury are hidden. We're trying to show people what someone with a brain injury feels, what their struggles are. Most people have no idea what someone with a brain injury goes through."
That includes not understanding what it's like to experience such trauma and the inherent, often lifelong side effects.
A head-on collision in March 2005 upended Steve's life. He can't remember the four and a half months surrounding the crash, and still suffers from short-term memory loss.
"I broke every bone above my lower jaw," he explained in the description of his mask at support group. "I really struggle with anger!"
Steve also lost his left eye in the collision, indicated on his mask by a large black dot.
The Brain Injury Support Group is intended to help members and their families navigate such physical and emotional changes.
The group convenes once per month at Gundersen, is free and open to anyone affected by a brain injury, including family and friends. The meetings rotate between activities like the Unmasking Brain Injury project, educational opportunities, guided discussions, featured speakers and outings in La Crosse.
Essentially, the group serves as a safe space for people dealing with brain injuries to find community and understanding, Andy says.
One of Steve's fellow group members, Chris Johnston, who suffered a brain injury when she was hit by a vehicle in 2001 while collecting her mail, painted her mask with bright colors and glitter symbolic of the "spirituality," "unity" and "peace" she now feels.
"The strength of those in this group is overwhelming. They have been faced with multiple struggles and have done so with grace, bravery and strength," says Elizabeth Rand, nurse educator and co-leader of the support group. "They are role models for us all and have taught me and so many to appreciate the life we have been given and live each day to the fullest."
For more information about the Brain Injury Support Group, contact Elizabeth at (608) 775-3239.
View the masks painted by Steve and Chris