Exhibit reflects pain, growth of people’s journeys with TBI

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Exhibit reflects pain, growth of people’s journeys with TBI

Brain-injury survivors discover art as therapy and as new form of expression
Bobbi Nodell

Shanda Taylor-Boyd appears the picture of health, far more youthful than her 53 years suggest. But she suffers from “the silent epidemic,” traumatic brain injury. 

The former U.S. Army nurse, a graduate of the University of Washington's School of Nursing, has trouble focusing. She struggles to find words. She suffers from fibromyalgia. 

Like many TBI survivors, her symptoms are linked to post-traumatic stress and other issues. Her life slowly came apart after a car accident in 2004. And although she looks much the same, Taylor-Boyd, once a multitasking mother of three, readily acknowledges she is not the same person as before the accident. 

Taylor-Boyd has found solace in support groups, mindfulness training and positive self-talk – and in art. She is one of 35 artists with TBI whose works are now displayed in an exhibit, “Breaking the Silence,” which runs through Sept. 16 at the University of Washington School of Social Work’s first-floor gallery (map). 

Shanda Taylor-Boyd
Shanda Taylor-Boyd
(Click to enlarge.) Shanda Taylor-Boyd's waterfall picture, "Soul Soothing Sounds in Seconds"
Shanda Taylor-Boyd's waterfall picture, titled "Soul Soothing Sounds in Seconds"

The World Health Organization projects that, by 2020, brain injury will surpass diseases to become the leading cause of death and disability for most age groups, including children. 

“Most all of us will be impacted by a brain injury at some point, whether it happens to us personally or someone we know,” said Deborah Crawley, the executive director of the Brain Injury Alliance of Washington, which is co-sponsoring the exhibit with the school. 

In its eighth year, the show enables brain injury survivors to connect with each other as artists and contributing members of society, and educates the community about traumatic brain injury.

Taylor-Boyd said that being an Army nurse and, later, a military police officer, were wonderful. But now she is adjusting to her new normal, which includes writing and singing – something she never did before her accident.

She has two pieces in the show, an image of a waterfall and one of her service dog, Timber, who helps relieve her post-traumatic stress. She and Timber walk by the waterfall almost every day.

“When you get those big stormy clouds and it feels like life is falling apart, go listen to a waterfall or imagine it in your head,” she said. “Things do get better. You will get better.” 

Genet Alemu The Many Rays of Sunshine
(Click to enlarge.) "The Many Rays of Sunshine," a painting (cropped) by Genet Alemu, who never painted before his traumatic brain injury.
"The Many Rays of Sunshine," a painting (cropped) by Genet Alemu

Many of the artists’ bios alongside their works similarly reflect on their journies. 

Yvonne Palermo graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s in fine arts and worked as a clinical technician. But after a car accident in 2011, she was reborn with a different personality and sees things “with radically elevated awareness,” her bio says.

Thomas Carter Keen Cunningham, age 9, wrote, “I fell out of the window 6 days before my 4th birthday. That’s how I got my brain injury and that’s why I want to help other families learn about window safety."

Genet Alemu said that after his traumatic brain injury in 2013, he turned to art as therapy. “It can be incredibly calming and kills all the chatter in my brain.” 

“Art is very healing for these survivors,” said Pauline Dehoog, an administrative assistant with the Brain Injury Alliance of Washington. “In most cases, they have discovered art afterward.  Some had art in their life and see art as a path back to themselves.“

The Brain Injury Alliance of Washington is based in Seattle near Harborview Medical Center and works closely with the TBI Model System based at the University of Washington, one of 16 U.S. centers that provide patient services after an injury, through rehabilitation and re-entry into community life.  The centers are funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.