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Survivors of stroke and brain injury had an opportunity to artistically express their journey during a recent Unmasking Brain Injury event at ECU Health Medical Center.

The Brain Injury Association of North Carolina sponsored the Unmasking Brain Injury workshop. This event provides blank face masks and supplies to decorate the masks. Unmasking Brain Injury is an organization that aims to bring awareness to the prevalence of brain injuries and give survivors a voice and the means to educate others of what it’s like to live and recover with a brain injury. The event was the first of its kind in the ECU Health system.

Michele Horvath, stroke navigator at ECU Health Medical Center, helped run the event and said it was a wonderful moment to share with survivors.

“Everybody was really engaged and it was an emotional time for survivors because it made them artistically express their stroke or their traumatic brain injury and some of them are still in recovery,” Horvath said. “They’re really excited to share their story and it was really heartfelt. We’re hoping to bring community awareness to some of these brain injuries.”

Wendy Gardner competes in an archery event.
Photos Courtesy of Wendy Gardner

Along with a support person, each attendee, many of them members of ECU Health’s Stroke Support Network, decorated a mask to represent their journey and recovery process from their stroke or brain injury.

Molly Twiss, marketing coordinator at the Brain Injury Association of North Carolina, said it was the first Unmasking Brain Injury event she’d helped coordinate and she felt inspired after the event. She explained that the masks could be anything attendees wanted, not just their brain injury or stroke, but about themselves as a whole.

“The masks are a look inside of them, what they’re feeling, what they’ve gone through, what they hope for the future,” Twiss said. “Some can be as small as their favorite TV show, their favorite color or something about what their life was like before their injury. So if they were a skier beforehand and their accident was a ski accident, they can have it ski related. The mask could represent just something to get their mind off of having this invisible injury.”

Discovering New Passions

Wendy Gardner had her first child in 2000. Ten days after her son was born in Wilson, she suffered a hemorrhagic stroke, which has affected the left side of her body.

About a year ago, Gardner joined the Stroke Support Network at ECU Health and she said she’s enjoyed connecting with people in eastern North Carolina who have had similar experiences. She said the Unmasking Brain Injury event was a positive experience for everyone and she hopes for similar events through the support group in the future.

Gardner’s mask was painted red white and blue and adorned with a gold medal, representative of her new found passion — and talent — for archery.

About three years ago, Gardner stumbled upon archery as a sport she could participate in. Today, Gardner is a member of the USA Para Archery World team.

Wendy Gardner poses for a photo with her husband while wearing medals earned in Santiago, Chile.

“I hadn’t been able to find a sport that I can do because my whole left side of my body is affected,” Gardner said. “So I can’t run and I really can’t swim and do the usual activities. So I’d kind of given up actually finding something that I could do. We happened to go to a big archery competition because our daughter was interested in it. I saw a guy who has no arms and shoots with his feet and his name is Matt Stutzman. He’s on our team. That is what got me inspired. I thought, if he can do it with no arms and I have one arm I could use, we could find some way for me to do this.”

Wendy and her husband went to work on figuring out some adaptive equipment to help her hone her new craft. She said there are not many resources available to help people with making adaptive archery equipment so they went through a “trial and error” process.

Once the Gardner family got a handle on making adaptive equipment and realized how expensive it could be for others to create their own equipment, they started a nonprofit called GX4 Adaptive Archery.

Her attitude since first suffering her stroke has made all the difference. She said she never expected to be involved in something like the USA Archery Team, and through her determination to try new things—coupled with her relentless effort—Gardner now travels the world doing something she loves.

This includes trips to the United Arab Emirates, Chile and Czech Republic with the team, and she hopes to be in France next summer for the 2024 Paralympic Games.

“I’m always like, ‘Why not me?’ And I would never have done anything like this if this had not happened to me,” Gardner said. “So I always tell people, go try something new. The main thing is show up, you’ve got to show up and don’t be afraid to look foolish doing it. Because sometimes, as someone with a physical disability, you will. But just show up and try and do your best.”


Stroke Support Network – Upcoming Events

Brain Injury Support Group – Upcoming Events

Unmasking Brain Injury