Carefree, full of life and surrounded by a lot of laughter and love. That’s the childhood BJ Smith, now 28 years old, remembers. Growing up in the Acadiana region of south Louisiana, Smith worked part time with his grandfather at the family’s furniture business.
“I’m a proud Cajun,” Smith said.
At an early age, his dad’s love for collecting classic cars piqued his interest as well. “I was always surrounded by car parts and loud engines. Over time, I came to love motorcycles and we sometimes rode dirt bikes as a family,” Smith said.
Smith lived what many would consider a typical teenage life – he attended private school, liked math, ran track and worked out in the gym often. He dreamed of playing football professionally and had moved to Houston for extensive sports training to prepare him for a future in the sport.
“A new phase of my life was opening up and I was very excited,” he said.
But Smith’s dreams came to a screeching halt one fateful day when he was involved in an incident.
“August 8, 2005, is the day my life changed forever,” Smith said. “It was a Monday. I had turned 15 years old just three weeks prior.”
Smith said he and a family member were taking turns riding a four-wheeler in their neighborhood when a dog ran out in front of the vehicle. Smith said he swerved to avoid hitting the animal and was thrown from the four-wheeler. He was not wearing a helmet.
“I suffered a severe traumatic brain injury, broken bones, punctured lungs, a lacerated liver and severe road burns to my arms, legs and upper back,” Smith said. “I was told when I was brought to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center (TMC) I was ‘Dead on Arrival’.”
Smith doesn’t remember much about his time in the hospital, but was told that he was in a coma for three weeks. His mother, Kim, can vividly recall the prognosis of her only son.
“At the time of BJ’s accident I was numb from the shock. The outcome was grim. We’re Catholic, so BJ received the Last Rites, which are only given to those who are mortally injured. All we could do was wait and hope that he’d come out of the coma,” said Smith’s mom.
Smith remained hospitalized for months, underwent several surgeries and had to have a portion of his skull removed to reduce the occurrence of swelling. His vision was greatly impacted and his rehabilitation included learning how to walk, talk, eat and dress himself again. With the support of his family and friends Smith had to face the reality of his new normal. Now, nearly 14 years later, he has found hope and healing through an unlikely hobby – painting.
Hope and Healing
“Before the accident, I had no interest in art. I had no idea when I started painting a few years ago that so many amazing things would happen. I was bored, lost and wondering about my purpose in the world. Something amazing happened when I found color. Everything opened up. I was obsessed with painting. I’d paint day and night. There was paint all over my apartment; on the walls, on my clothes, on top of the stove and even inside of the refrigerator. Painting quickly became my obsession. I couldn’t stop and I don’t want to,” Smith said.
Smith said his favorite creations are abstract art and that nothing is more gratifying than the connection he feels when he is face-to-face with a blank canvas.
“Paint responds to the energy of the environment and so I try to create in a positive atmosphere. The canvas is like a dance floor. It’s all about making the colors vibrate,” Smith said. “ I’m into frequencies. You have to become one with the paint and visualize an amazing outcome. As I choose and mix the colors, I feel excited.”
Certain genres of music, such as ambient, classical and trance, and even silence also act as Smith’s muses for his paintings.
As a traumatic brain injury survivor, Smith is grateful for the strides he has made. He credits his family, friends and painting as key in his recovery. So, it was important for him to share his love for painting at the very place he said his life was saved: Memorial Hermann-TMC.
“I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for the care I received at Memorial Hermann-TMC. My neurosurgeon saved my life. I want people to see my art as a representation of my ongoing healing and the miracle that is my life. Donating my art to the neuroscience unit at the hospital is a way for me to share my story artistically. It’s my way of saying thank you,” Smith said.
Smith created two pieces for donation to Memorial Hermann-TMC, “Eye of the Storm” and “Blue Dream.”
“A brain injury is a lot like a hurricane. It devastates everything it touches. After 14 years, I’m learning to find my center. The heart of the storm is the best place to be, which became the inspiration for the name of ‘Eye of the Storm.’ The second piece, ‘Blue Dream,’ represents everything falling in place at the right time. Similar to divine timing. I have come to see that I am the creator, writer and actor in my world.”
The Best is Yet to Come
Many people who meet Smith for the first time will likely not be able to immediately recognize his struggles. His outlook on life is optimistic, his interactions with others are warm and his creativity in his paintings continues to blossom. Smith said his hope is to use his trials and experience with a traumatic brain injury as a platform to inspire others to triumph over their most difficult moments. He and his mother are passionate about promoting the importance of brain injury awareness through BrainART Alliance, which serves as a platform for inspiring increased compassion, understanding, hope and support for people with disabilities. The Smith’s travel frequently to advocate for disability rights and discuss the power of art in healing, especially for those who have experienced various injuries.
“Art is powerful. It’s important for me to share my story because people need to know more about traumatic brain injury and all the ways that art can heal. Art has helped me to express myself and connect with the local community and beyond. Art means everything to me. My dream is to paint the whole world,” Smith said.
In honor of National Trauma Survivors Day, Memorial Hermann is proud to share BJ’s inspiring story. To learn more about trauma care at Memorial Hermann, click here.