FARGO — It was almost six years ago when Jordan Volkenant had a near-death experience when his car collided head-on with a truck at about 55 mph.

His body and brain were seriously injured.

Today, he said his body feels like he's a "state champion athlete." But his brain injury persists and he believes he will always have that "big hurdle that I'll have to jump over."

"It's a brain ailment and it'll probably be with me the rest of my life," the 32-year-old said. "I just have to accept it."

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"I wish I could get a new brain that wasn't hurt or injured, but they don't hand out new brains," Volkenant said.

The Moorhead man was one of more than 50 people with brain injuries who gathered at Sanford Health to paint masks as part of the Unmasking Brain Injury art project to create awareness and to give survivors a voice.

Volkenant's mask was all gray. What that showed, he said, was that he doesn't "necessarily see the world as beautiful and artistically composed as it is with the colors and mixture of those colors."

The gray, he said, also represents his "dealing with my brain injury."

"Because I always have to look through it," he said.

Despite the gray, he also painted across the top of his mask the words "lucky" because he does feel that way about being alive.

"I was extremely lucky that day" he said about his accident and he credits wearing his seat belt to saving his life.

However, he goes to see a therapist once a week, he said, because although his body has healed "it's the emotional stuff" related to his brain injury that he deals with much more often.

"It's a matter of constantly fighting that battle. I don't think you don't solve psychology by the flip of a switch or the snap of a finger. My ailment is a constant battle," Volkenant said.

He was joined at the event sponsored by the North Dakota Brain Injury Network by other brain injured people and their families, said physician assistant Jenny Marsden, who works in the Sanford Health Rehabilitation Hospital on South University Drive.

Marsden said it was an opportunity to bring brain injury awareness to the forefront.

"I don't think people know a lot about it unless it's a family member or yourself," she said.

Brain injuries can be caused by a number of things including strokes, falls, physical assaults, infections, seizures, accidents and, said Marsden, even respiratory illnesses that cause a lack of oxygen to the brain.

She wished patients would paint the masks to show how they feel before they begin their treatment. "Many can't verbalize their pain or how they feel," she said.

The Sanford facility, the only one in North Dakota certified by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, treats patients 14 and older. To have a facility here is helpful to many families as some more well-known facilities are as far away as Denver, Omaha, Neb., and the Twin Cities.

Marsden said they can only have about 14 to 16 patients at the facility and that there is a constant demand for services, which are provided by a staff of three doctors, another physician assistant and nurses who work with physical, occupational and speech therapists as well as psychologists.

The mask project is part of a national program.

Carly Endres of the University of North Dakota Center for Rural Health said the masks would be on display at numerous events, including a possible gallery showing this fall. With a first name and last name initial attached as well as an explanation of how the colors and designs describe how the brain injured person feels, masks already have been shown at the state Capitol and at the UND Medical School.

In the end, Endres said they hope to show that brain injured persons are still "like everyone else."