BrainArt Alliance’s BJ and Kim Lanclos Smith – Advocating for Art as Therapy for Traumatic Brain Injuries

Jan Swift, BJ Smith, and Kim Lanclos Smith at taping of Discover Lafayette

BJ Smith, and his mom, Kim Lanclos-Smith, joined Discover Lafayette to discuss how their world was forever changed when BJ suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of an ATV accident at the age of 15.

BJ is now an artist, and has found joy painting with acrylics for the past five years. He has taken his trauma and converted it into the beauty and sanctity of life through his art. He loves to share his art. His mom, Kim, has become an advocate for the many challenges and financial needs that a family faces when caring for a loved one with a traumatic brain injury, also known as TBI.

BJ was an adventurous teen with dreams of playing professional football who was stopped in his tracks by a tragic ATV accident on August 8, 2005. A young teen staying in Houston with relatives one summer to improve his football skills, BJ was on a racing four-wheeler going 60 mph when a dog ran out in front of him and he swerved to miss it. He was thrown 25 feet with no helmet on, breaking bones, and suffering internal injuries and road burns from the tumble.

BJ’s brain injuries were so horrific that he was DOA upon arrival at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. He stayed in the ICU with a 10% chance of survival, in a coma for three weeks, as his head had taken the brunt force of the accident. His surgeon has stated that he has no idea how BJ survived. His recovery has been miraculous and he was never even expected to be able to walk, yet he survived whole. However, BJ lost his ability to be self-sufficient, plan for the future, or focus on goals in life.

“A brain injury is a lot like a hurricane. It devastates everything it touches. After so many years, I’m learning to find my center. The harder the storm is, it’s the best place to be. We’ve been given life to experience. At this point in my spiritual journey, I embrace it in my solid form, each and every day. There is so much more on the spectrum of life than we can perceive.”

His mom, Kim Lanclos-Smith, has dedicated her life to taking care of BJ and is his main caretaker, with the help of aides financially provided for in the last ten years under the New Opportunities Waiver (“NOW”) program administered by the State of Louisiana’s Department of Health, Office for Citizens with Developmental Disabilities. People with BJ’s condition must have suffered this disability before the age of 21 to qualify for the waiver. Each year, BJ and Kim must reapply for the NOW waiver to continue to receive much-needed assistance to ensure that BJ is adequately cared for. For Acadiana residents who need more information, visit the Acadiana Area Human Services District.

As BJ has progressed in his recovery, his love of art has developed and increased. He loves painting in free form, sometimes flinging acrylic paint all over the room. Even though he has lost 60% of his vision and is legally blind, he experiences color as he feels it in his heart. He says that is “where he lives.”

“If you open your eyes, color is everywhere. Embrace that feeling of the color we’ve been given. The energy of color is amazing, the spectrum to be on. You are color, your eyes are color, we are color,” says BJ Smith.

BJ had a near-death experience and with that came a spiritual awakening. “Heaven was full of love.” He gives advice to people such as “Don’t ever talk down to anyone.” He is not scared to die as he knows that “God owns me.”

Every nine seconds someone suffers a traumatic brain injury, which is about 3 million people per year. It often goes undiagnosed and it is very difficult to get paid care for victims of TBI. Kim shared that 25 to 80% of the prison population has pre-crime TBI, with over 60% reporting head injuries. Well-known pro football players such as Aaron Hernandez and others have suffered massive head injuries and ended up in prison for their violent acts. The Brain Injury Association of America provides a wealth of information on the subject.

Kim was not unaware of the challenges of a TBI when BJ was injured. Her brother, Brett, was born with an anoxic brain injury at birth when he was deprived of oxygen. The family was unaware of the injury until Brett failed to make the developmental milestones expected as one grows and matures. Brett stayed home until he was nine years old, and when his parents divorced, he was placed in a care facility. After about 20 years, at the time when Louisiana de-institutionalized its long-term care patients, Brett was released and received a NOW waiver to receive care. Unfortunately, he suffered a tragic death as a result of neglect by his caretakers.

Kim now testifies regularly on behalf of TBI victims and as an advocate of the need for adequate and safe care. She shared that there is an enormous crisis in the caretaker industry as they are underpaid and overworked. It is estimated that a TBI victim’s lifelong care costs $4 million to cover rehabilitation and care, as well as daily living expenses. She also believes that law enforcement professionals need training on the effects of TBI as the brain damage suffered can mimic the effects of intoxication.

Kim attempted to start a Louisiana movement for families concerned about the safety of ATVs but was unsuccessful. “Everyone loves riding ATVs in Louisiana. Parents, please be aware. Don’t put your five-year-old on an ATV. It is very dangerous.”

BJ and Kim Lanclos Smith started the BrainArt Alliance, a non-profit to raise awareness of brain injuries and the various therapies, including art, that can help heal.

We thank BJ and Kim Lanclos Smith for their love of others and determination to see that each life, no matter the circumstances, is lived to the fullest!