Roy Exum: Unmask Brain Injuries

Wednesday, April 18, 2018 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I have a special friend, a real special guy who had a childhood others would envy. One night during a party at his University of Alabama fraternity, he and some other brothers threw a thug out who was trying to crash the party. Who would have ever guessed the jerk would come back with a butcher knife and slam the business end through the promising kid’s brain. After weeks of touch-and-go, he miraculously survived.

Another guy I love was driving his daughter home from tennis practice at Baylor and, as they were going south on the Olgiati Bridge, a car going in the opposite direction hit a piece of loose piece of metal in the roadway. The chunk of metal was launched like a missile into southbound traffic.

The piece of steel rocketed through the windshield, hit the pretty tennis player in the head with such force it shattered part of her skull, and she became one of 2.5 million Americans each year who suffer a traumatic brain injury. Of that number, 52,000 die and the CDC estimates there are 3.5 million in the United States who require long-term care.

The Alabama frat boy and the talented tennis player, who also survived, are not just statistics. They belong to wonderful Chattanooga families I adore. When something bad happens to anyone’s brain, the person you who knew is never the same person. It is absolutely devastating. That sounds horribly cruel but everything … I mean, everything … changes for entire families.

Next Friday a group you may have never heard of is having an “unmasking” at the Convention Center where many masks will tell a dazzling story about each survivor of a traumatic brain injury. The Chattanooga Area Brain Injury Association (CABIA) has quite a collection of hobby-type face masks that each survivor has painted and there is a story with each.

For example: Conner, a state wrestling champion at McCallie, had just finished college and was working on his Series 7 exam when a car sailed through a stop sign. He was not expected to live, then he was expected to never walk or talk. “Siskin saved my life,” he said after a round of golf. “I feel strongly that God saved me to make an impact on the world. My faith and my positive attitude are choices I appreciate.”

Thus, Conner’s mask reflects his faith, his attitude and his dreams and, if there is a common thread TBI patients share, it is a strong faith, choice in attitude and dreams for the future. Drew, shortly after he earned a degree in chemistry, says the bicycle helmet on his mask reminds him of the long ride back on a new path. He remembers absolutely nothing about the tragedy.

On the other hand, Ian is adored for his wit: “A little brain surgery gives you a headache,” he says, “but a stroke is a lot more complicated unless you go through it.” Ian delights in calling his mask, “Low Will Power.”

Others are deeply personal. One mask reflects “the loneliness that comes when you see your old friends leading different lives and you never get to see them again.” Another has lightning bolts painted over the eyes “to explain what the seizures are like."

Tina says the silver cross on her mask “represents my faith and reminds me that God loves handicapped people … God put regular-day people in special-needs people’s lives for His purpose,” she said and the man who knows that best is next week’s guest speaker – North Carolina’s Marty Foil. After his brother suffered a traumatic brain injury, Marty has thrown himself totally into the TBI arena.

He has started two centers for those with TBI issues, is an advocate for prevention, education and out-reach, and is behind what is now a global effort to “unmask brain injuries.” A certified brain injury specialist, Foil’s mission “is to show others that persons living with a disability due to their brain injury are like everyone else. They deserve dignity, respect, compassion and the opportunity to prove their worth.

The Brain Injury Association would like a big crowd for the luncheon and particularly urges anyone whose family or loved one have been touched by traumatic brain injuries. Some tables are still available and individual tickets are $75. The luncheon will begin next Friday (April 27) at the Convention Center, starting at 11:30 am. Those wishing to make reservations or desiring further information should contact Lisa Morgan at 423/634-1572. The CABTIA office is located in the Siskin Hospital building and an email address is

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At the end of next week’s luncheon, try to say hello to some of the TBI survivors because their courage, their attitudes and each one’s ability to “persevere through any adversity" will make your heart soar.

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