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The Art of Recovery: After a Traumatic Brain Injury, Patient Returns to College to Finish Her Design Degree

Special Tree client Jessica M. was just a year and a half from graduating from Oakland University in Rochester, MI when her life took a dramatic turn in January 2014.  

That winter, Jessica felt like things were finally falling into place.  After changing her major several times at Ferris State University, she’d transferred to Oakland University to pursue her dream of becoming a graphic designer.  Although OU was a 75 mile drive from her home in Monroe, MI, she was thriving in their design program and was looking forward to graduating to start her own design firm closer to home.  Jessica had even lined up an interview during the first week of winter classes for a nice part-time job to help pay for school.  On the day of her interview, she left campus early because it was snowing.  It was the last thing Jessica remembered before waking up in the ICU.  

“If it weren’t for the off-duty police officer who witnessed my car accident, I wouldn’t be here,” said Jessica.  Jessica was diagnosed with a severe traumatic brain injury and was put in a medically induced coma for two days.  While her memories at the hospital are fuzzy, a few remain crystal clear.  When doctors told her she wouldn’t be able to go back to school for at least a year, she “raised a little hell.”

“I was like, NO, that’s not going to work,’” she said.  “I told them I wanted to start my rehabilitation NOW so that I could get back to my life.”  Once Jessica was medically stable, she came to Special Tree’s NeuroCare Center to continue her rehabilitation.  Jessica worked closely with a multi-disciplinary team of therapists to develop a treatment plan based on her needs and goals.  For the next four months, she made huge strides in her recovery and was determined to return to school.  According to Special Tree Case Manager J. Briggs, Jessica was able to transition to her own apartment in the spring with help from Special Tree’s Home Health Care team.  By the end of the summer, she was living independently and signed up for fall classes at OU.

Although she desperately wanted to be back in school, Jessica was overwhelmed with her courses and dropped out of the semester. “My brain was still having complications and my self-confidence was shot,” she said.  Jessica realized she needed more support and eventually returned to Special Tree for help.

Jessica’s therapy team suggested participating in Special Tree’s Creative Arts Program at the Troy Neuro Skills Center given her interest in graphic design. The program combines the therapeutic benefits of creating art in a vocational rehabilitation setting to help clients develop skills and confidence for future employment.  Because the program is therapeutically-based, it can be tailored to meet each participant’s needs, interests, and skills. 

“I was super excited,” said Jessica.  “I’d never thought of art as a therapy but the staff in the program really helped me out.”  

According to former Creative Arts Program Coordinator Ashley Forstek, Jessica really shined throughout her seven months in the program. “Not only did she create fabulous artwork, she often assisted staff in helping clients with their projects and would make handmade letters and cards for staff and clients,” said Ashley.  “It was evident she was very talented and had hefty artistic skills, but she just needed to see that for herself.”

Jessica credits the program and staff for improving her self-confidence and outlook on life.  “After the accident, I wanted to go back to my life and didn’t want it placed on hold.  My therapy team helped me to embrace the fact that things have changed and that my life may not be 100% of what it was before, but that I’ll mostly get there.”

Jessica not only returned to OU’s Graphic Design program in the fall of 2017, she recently celebrated her graduation from the program in December 2019 -- making sure to send her therapy team a copy of her graduation announcement.     

“This is a huge achievement and we’re all so proud of Jessica and what she’s had to overcome to accomplish her goals,” said Briggs. 

Now that Jessica has earned her BA, she’s excited to begin the next chapter of her life which includes launching her freelance graphic design business in Monroe.   “I’m so grateful to everyone at Special Tree,” she said.  “The rehabilitation I received is what got me where I am today and is the foundation from which I continue to build from.”