After a vehicle collision in 2002, Erica Gonzalez was in the hospital for three months, most of which she can’t remember. Her traumatic brain injury (TBI) was to the back of her head and resulted in immediate physical and visual changes with the onset of multiple strokes.
It was hard, the physical therapy to help her walk—the left side of her body was paralyzed and she needed to wear a knee brace called an Ankle Foot Orthotic (AFO). This on top of the loss of most of her vision was especially difficult. “I struggled a long time with coming to terms and accepting my visual impairment.” Erica and her family sought out doctors to help regain her vision, only to find that these impairments would be permanent.
“I’m not good at being blind, but I get by,” Erica says. Since she can’t be fully blind, Erica is caught between two worlds —the seeing world and the blind world. It also means that she has to rely on her minimal vision to walk and move forward in her life. For example, in the blind world, someone is able to rely heavily on their other senses, such as touch, sound, etc. Living in between worlds means that reading books or mastering Braille may both be challenges. It also means she might not have access to some of the technology and/or support systems usually present.
Erica says she’s come to accept her physical and visual impairments, and, of course she’s been living with them for thirteen years since the accident. Unfortunately, her mobility has deteriorated since her first rehabilitative sessions, resulting in her need for a wheeled-walker, which she handles like a pro-driver! However, she is now able to use a Bio Ness knee brace which stimulates the part of the muscle that lifts her foot, so instead of dragging her leg, the Bio Ness helps lift the leg for a better step and also allows Erica to wear almost any shoe (such as sandals – something wonderful in this Texas heat). “No flip flops though, darn it!” she laughs.
Erica does need more time to get places and extra help at home through the support of her family (like so many others who have a TBI). She also receives services from Meals on Wheels and has been on a housing waiting list since 2009 with the Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS). She is also involved with the National Federation for the Blind (NFB) and Small Victories to name a few support groups.
When we met for our interview, I picked Erica up at her home and we went to a nearby Starbucks – she wanted an opportunity to get out of the house for a while and chat over coffee. It was such a wonderful experience. Erica is a little shy and soft-spoken, but so open and positive about life and where she is headed for the future. Through Small Victories, Erica received a scholarship for drawing lessons. “I love drawing because it’s pretty!” she expresses with a big smile and laughter. She begins showing me all her amazing art. I truly can’t believe how remarkable each piece is —wow seeing is believing!
Laurie Mann, Erica’s drawing teacher has guided Erica to use art “chalk” (if you will), which are called Pastels. The colors are bright, vivid, and so happy and expressive. “Laurie was able to find a tool I could see with my visual impairment. While I can’t draw fine details, such as a face, I was able to use ‘puffy paint,’
which is textured paint I can touch and feel and then mimic in my drawing.”
It was impressive to see how Erica saw an internet picture that she wanted to draw in her art class, and used her pastels to reach the perfect effect (Picture 1). They are so similar she might one day—as she continues her drawing experience—take on a career as one of the artists that copy masterpieces for people’s homes and galleries.
It shows how limited our understanding of our senses are today. Some people might never have imagined a visually impaired and partially paralyzed person could take on the intimidating challenge of drawing, painting, and sketching. Erica makes it look so easy!
Small Victories has been able to support Erica in her quest for self-sustainment through creativity and the love of beautiful things. Of course for Erica, “having others see my paintings and share their awe and enthusiasm feels wonderful.” As a self-professed perfectionist, Erica is most happy, “when I have a finished painting.” She enjoys the process of drawing, however, knowing that final piece is completed is the real drive behind her determination to work hard and achieve something beautiful, or as Erica likes to say “pretty.”
Even though Erica can escape in her love of art, there are days that are more difficult. Yesterday she fell and was at home alone. Of course that pesky cell phone was on the table not in her pocket as usual. She waited for hours until Meals for Wheels arrived and called her mother to come help. Each day can be fragile when you have a TBI, especially combined with other physical or intellectual injuries—it’s easy to understand that someone with these injuries never knows if it will be a good day or a bad day.
It is astounding to see how quickly Erica bounced back and was ready to meet the following day. Erica said, “it’s great to have something to keep [you] busy and focused. Each day is better when you are not sitting around just thinking about yourself.” Her drawing is just one of the ways she finds joy and the ability to be active and interact with other people. “I have a feeling of accomplishment when people see and like my art and provide positive feedback,“ Erica states.
Before Erica’s crippling TBI and accident, she was a senior in high school; finishing her last couple of classes during her recovery. In 2009 she had the tools from her stint with the Chris Cole Rehabilitation Center (CCRC) to return to school. “Well, I was sort of bored, so I went back to school in 2009 and graduated in 2014 with an Associate’s degree in hospitality specializing in meeting and event planning,” stated Erica. Now through volunteering with the NFB and Small Victories, she hopes to begin helping organize events and work with social media—something that’s right in line with her career choice.
Combining her love of art and her degree, with the support of foundations like Small Victories and NFB, she’s been able to create a new life and is reaching toward her New Normal. “I’m not there yet [her new normal], but I’m positive about the future. I can now see myself living on my own, in my own place!” says Erica. And, the rest of us see her finding her place between the vision world and blind world where she’s found her “new normal world”—a place just for her to thrive with lots of pretty things, and family and friends to keep her busy and focused on the future.
Erica has a lot of spirit and commitment toward gaining her dream. Like her artwork—her small dog, a Chihuahua, her volunteering, and her drawing are just a few of the stepping stones to seeing her future in vivid color. Seeing is believing — so check out her vivid art work in this article or on the Small Victories Foundation Facebook page. Erica loves to hear from others about her work, so your encouragement is welcome!
SVF is pleased to feature the very talented writer Tamika Smith. Tamika is a former Vice President of Communications/Marketing and a current TBI survivor and piano student searching for her new “normal” post-therapy.