FARGO — After a brain injury, diminished motor skills can leave some struggling to verbalize their feelings.

A program through the North Dakota Brain Injury Network helps give some a voice with their hands.

A show of about 135 masks decorated by those with brain injuries opens Tuesday, March 3, at Fargo’s Sanford Medical Center. The display, "Unmasking Brain Injury," is up through March 27 to draw attention to Brain Injury Awareness Month.

“Most of them really enjoy the opportunity to open up, the opportunity to share their experiences with brain injury,” says Rebecca Quinn, a program director with the North Dakota Brain Injury Network.

The program was first developed by a North Carolina rehabilitation provider. Quinn says once people in NDBIN saw what it could do, they adapted it for their organization in 2017.

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Brain injury survivors create masks to tell their story at an unmasked event. Special to The Forum
Brain injury survivors create masks to tell their story at an unmasked event. Special to The Forum

The project is based around “unmasking events” when brain injury survivors gather to decorate plain white masks. Some create pictures, others decorate with designs and some write phrases or words to express themselves.

“One of the reasons the project has developed is because brain injuries are often called a ‘hidden disability’ because most individuals with brain injuries don’t have outward signs and people don’t recognize it in an individual or among our society, how many individuals there are with brain injury among us,” Quinn says. “So it’s really an opportunity for those individuals to shine a light on their experience and to add it to the greater collective. A lot of individuals appreciate being part of the touring collection.”

The entire collection is over 140 pieces, but not all of them will be on display at Sanford as a handful will be displayed in Mandan, N.D., this month.

Alexander from Bismarck explains how his classmates were cruel to him after he was injured in a car crash. Special to The Forum
Alexander from Bismarck explains how his classmates were cruel to him after he was injured in a car crash. Special to The Forum

Looking at such a large selection, Quinn says some themes will become apparent, even from artists with such diverse backgrounds and stories.

“It really struck me that while each injury is unique, there are similarities across them,” she says. “The amount of masks that have the mouth covered up to represent an inability to speak or the feeling of being silenced, or dividing the mask in half and having a before and after, almost a two-faced thing.”

A website for the show includes images with statements by mask creators, like Brooke S. of Grand Forks who painted a menacing tornado on her mask.

“Daily it feels like my thoughts, feelings and knowledge are in a tornado when nothing seems to go ‘AS IT SHOULD,’” she says.

"My brain injury is like this mask.  It may be beautiful on the outside but it masks the pain and the uncertainty on the inside," explains Kim of Devils Lake. Special to The Forum
"My brain injury is like this mask. It may be beautiful on the outside but it masks the pain and the uncertainty on the inside," explains Kim of Devils Lake. Special to The Forum

Some use a variety of images, like David G. of Devils Lake, who incorporates a lightning bolt to represent unseen scar tissue, stitches to show the healing process, purple over half the mask to depict “a bruise that will never fade” and stars for the ongoing recovery journey.

Some use very explosive words like the ones directed at them by those who don’t understand the effects of a brain injury.

“Life changed completely after my accident,” says Alexander of Bismarck, who was thrown from a vehicle in a rollover, landed headfirst on the road and also suffered a fractured pelvis, collapsed lung, bruised heart and lungs and fractures to the face and skull, as well as almost losing his left eye. “I was a teenager and had to learn how to do everything all over again when I was recovering. I was 18 and would have been a senior in high school but missed my last year and graduating with my class. When I returned to school I was treated terrible by the kids at school. I lost most of my friends because they really don’t understand me. I have physical and cognitive difficulties. People called me a ‘retard’ and a ‘moron’ and they look at me funny all the time. I wish they would treat me better. I am still me inside. I feel broken sometimes.”

Quinn says explaining the mask can be as helpful as making the mask.

“They do like that opportunity to talk about it,” she says. “A lot of individuals want that opportunity to share and show it to different people.”

And the learning experience isn’t just for the survivors, but also those who seek to learn more about brain injuries.

“Most people feel (the masks) are powerful,” Quinn says. “They really do their job of raising awareness so people can get some insight about what it’s like living with brain injury.”

David G. of Devils Lake uses a lightning bolt to represent unseen scar tissue, stitches to show the healing process, purple over half the mask to depict “a bruise that will never fade” and stars for the ongoing recovery journey. Special to The Forum
David G. of Devils Lake uses a lightning bolt to represent unseen scar tissue, stitches to show the healing process, purple over half the mask to depict “a bruise that will never fade” and stars for the ongoing recovery journey. Special to The Forum

If you go

What: "Unmasking Brain Injury"

When: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays, through March 27

Where: Sanford Medical Center, 5225 23rd Ave. S., Fargo

Info: This show is free and open to the public