Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series about people in the lakes area who are living with the aftermath of a traumatic brain injury. It is a prelude to an upcoming art event at Trinity Lutheran Church titled "Unmasking Brain Injury," which is being co-hosted by the church and the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance on Monday, Oct. 7. The second story will appear in the Sunday, Oct. 6, Tribune.
Perham's Kellie Smith doesn't clearly remember the head-on collision in which she and her daughter, Olive, were involved on Nov. 30, 2015, en route to Detroit Mountain.
Though Olive, who was 3 at the time, escaped relatively unscathed, her mother was not so fortunate.
"I had what is called a closed head traumatic brain injury," Smith said, somberly. "I sustained a severe concussion and smashed blood vessels from the impact."
At first, Smith said, she suffered from debilitating migraine headaches; even now, nearly four years later, she still has episodes of dizziness, as well as impaired vision and depth perception.
"Anything closer than 18 inches is doubled" in her vision, she says, and she can sometimes walk into things that appear further away than they actually are, because "depth perception is hard for me."
"I also have no peripheral vision in my left eye," she added.
Though she doesn't struggle to read as much as she did in the months following the injury, thanks to intensive occupational and vision therapy, it's still not as easy as it used to be.
But the thing she struggles with the most, Smith admitted, is her short-term memory, and processing information.
"I survive off my phone," she said, adding that she leaves herself a lot of notes and calendar reminders. "I have to set reminders for basically everything."
Smith, who started a traumatic brain injury and concussion support group in Perham a couple of years ago, says that she takes every opportunity she can to heighten people's awareness of the long-lasting effects that such a injury can have, not just on the people that live through it, but those who care for them.
"My husband doesn't really talk about being my caregiver," Smith said, "but that carries its own struggles ... he's been a fantastic support for me."
For instance, Smith said, right after she sustained the injury she was referred to a specialist in Pittsburgh, but because she couldn't fly, her husband Jacob drove her out there and back again, once every six weeks at first, and then once every three to five months for checkups.
"He altered his job schedule so he could go with me," Smith said, while Olive would usually stay with family members.
"I was discharged (from the specialist's care) almost a year ago," she added. Now, she is able to go to doctors within a few hours of her home for most of her therapy appointments, and sees a chiropractor in Perham for her day-to-day needs.
"It's mainly routine checkups now," she added.
Smith said that events like next week's "Unmasking Brain Injury" art project at Trinity Lutheran Church in Detroit Lakes are important, because it's the kind of injury that most people don't think about.
"It's such a quiet injury," she said, adding that to people who don't know her, she looks "completely normal on the outside."
"I'm very stubborn, in that I want to take care of myself, do things myself," Smith said. "You don't want to lead by introducing yourself as someone who has a brain injury, but sometimes, you have to."
One of the things she's had to learn, Smith added, is that if she doesn't let people know about what's happening, and pushes herself too hard, she has to pay the price, in the form of headaches, confusion and heightened emotions.
"I have to pace myself," she said. "But I do still push myself sometimes. There's still that inner struggle going ... that's something I still have to work on."
Unmasking Brain Injury
People who are living with the effects of a traumatic brain injury, concussion or stroke are invited, along with their caregivers, to take part in a special art project known as "Unmasking Brain Injury," Monday, Oct. 7, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Detroit Lakes.
This statewide, community-based art project is intended to promote brain injury awareness by providing a creative outlet for individuals who want to share their stories of what it's like to live with a brain injury, concussion or stroke.
"I was at the Minneapolis Basilica when they had an exhibit of several hundred masks, all painted by people who had had a stroke, brain injury or something similar, and their families and caretakers," said Mark Berg, director of arts and music programming at Trinity Lutheran.
He noticed that next to each mask was a note card that described what the mask represented, and told the story of the person who created it.
"The exhibit was extremely moving," said Berg, so he decided to contact the person at the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance who had organized the exhibit, as well as the mask-painting events that preceded it.
They arranged to host a similar mask-painting project at Trinity on Oct. 7, from 7 to 9 p.m.
"The Brain Injury Alliance supplies everything," Berg said. "It's completely free to the participants."
Anyone can come in and paint a mask, then write or print out a note card describing the thoughts and emotions that went into its creation. Those masks and note cards are then taken by the Brain Injury Alliance and mounted on an art board that will become part of the traveling "Unmasking Brain Injury" exhibit.
"I want to exhibit the masks (at Trinity) in November and December," Berg added.
If you go
What: "Unmasking Brain Injury" mask painting project
When: Monday, Oct. 7, 7-9 p.m.
Where: Trinity Lutheran Church, 1401 Madison Ave., Detroit Lakes
Info: Event is free for all people who have lived through a traumatic brain injury or stroke, as well as their family members and caregivers, but those wishing to participate are asked to RSVP Mark Berg at 218-849-4337. More information is available at www.unmaskingmn.org.