The Devastating And Hopeful Tales Of Brain Injury Survivors

The masks hang in sadness, darkness displayed in the words that are pasted on them.

Broken. Hurt. Life Over. Angry. Suicidal. Tragic. Worry. Cheated. Helpless. Lost.

The masks also hang in joy, with light displayed in the words chosen.

Grateful. Still Intelligent. Miracle. One to watch. Promising. Life. Hope. Optimistic. Healed. Survivor.

Yes, survivor. 

Each of the masks displayed this week inside the IU Health Neuroscience Center was crafted by a survivor of traumatic brain injury. The creations are part of a national project called Unmasking Brain Injury, put on locally by Heads Or Tails/Brain Injury Survivors of Indiana and other support groups statewide.  

We met with three survivors to hear the story of their masks and how their lives were changed.

Tanner Freeman, 24, Martinsville.

He was working a food truck downtown Indianapolis on July 4, 2014, when Tanner Freeman got the call. He was needed at another job the next morning — early.

It was already close to midnight, so Freeman asked his boss if he could leave to get some sleep before his early shift. Because his car recently had broken down, Freeman got a ride.

On the way home, after stopping to get a bite to eat, man driving Freeman pulled up alongside a truck at a stop light and decided to drag race.

“He got up to 165 miles (per hour) before losing control and wrapping around a pole,” Freeman says. The driver walked away with a broken femur.

Freeman was pronounced dead at the scene.

Inside IU Health Methodist Hospital, Rhonda Freeman was told her son would likely not recover from his injuries; he would be a shell of who he once was. 

“Doctors know better than to put odds like that against me now,” Freeman says. “I am too much of a miracle.”

After three months at Methodist and rehab at Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana, Freeman went home. He still has left side weakness in his leg and little to no movement in his left arm. Yet, he is hopeful.

“Tanner is really doing great. He is upbeat most of the time and positive,” says Rhonda Freeman, who is a co-facilitator for Heads Or Tails/Brain Injury Survivors of Indiana. “Of course, he misses his old life.”

Freeman’s goal is to get back to college and keep moving forward. His mask tells that story.  

Freeman’s mask in his words: “I was a passenger in a car accident. I won’t quit working toward a better me. I am one to watch as I am taking care of business. I always make an effort to give more than 100 percent, I think 120 percent. I have always been pretty OCD, but it has been magnified since the injury. I feel like I am actually becoming a better man. My vision is decreased after the injury and now I wear glasses. I am so grateful to still be alive and where I am today. I am going to let my injury be my motivation to become better and an even more intelligent person. My brain is injured. I am not.”

Maria Martino, 52, Kokomo

It was her 40th birthday. A day to celebrate. Maria Martino was living her best life. 

She was an associate professor in health behavior and family studies at Indiana University and lived in Bloomington. She had a master’s degree in recreational therapy and was working on a doctorate degree.

And so, on her milestone birthday, Martino’s niece asked to take her out.

As her niece drove straight through a green light, another car disregarded the red light and collided with Martino and her niece.

“I kind of remember the wreck, kind of not,” says Martino. “When I woke up, I was thinking, ‘What the heck?’ There was like this whole swarm of all these people around at the scene.”

Martino later found out her niece thought she had died. She didn’t. She lived, but life has not been the same since her traumatic brain injury.

“Everything is different,” she says. “Everything.” 

Martino’s mask in her words: “The mask represents the two vastly different sides of me, my life prior to the car accident and my life now. The blue side was prior to the accident and the red side represents my life now. I was relatively healthy, enjoyed living in Bloomington where I was surrounded by friends and going to various activities that a Big 10 city had to offer. I enjoyed being physically active by participating in many sports. I also liked to spend time with family, which was very important to me, On the red side, it reflects I am not able to attend IU with friends and colleagues. I am on disability. Many challenges and injuries have altered every aspect of my life.”

Jacob Gebuhr, 29, Indianapolis

He doesn’t remember the accident – and no one saw it. What Jacob Gebuhr does know is that he was 22 years old, riding a longboard skateboard in Indianapolis. He was sailing down the streets and hills when it happened.

“Apparently, I was probably going pretty fast when it happened,” he says. “I just hit right on my skull, right in the center on my forehead.” 

It was an eerie scene. The board was in perfect condition. Gebuhr’s body looked fine. Nothing was broken. There was no blood. But when doctors took out the front of his skull, they found a slight fracture.   

Gebuhr was put in a coma at Methodist for 10 days. He was in the hospital for a month after surgery to remove the front of his skull.

Since then, Gebuhr graduated from college with a 3.66 GPA. Yet, he has struggled finding work. He has headaches and seizures and other lasting effects of the injury. 

Inside the Neuroscience Center this week, Gebuhr looked at the masks of other brain injury survivors.

“A lot of it is reminiscent of what I went through,” he says. “The pain but also the feeling of goodness because I am still here. I’m alive. There is a reason for that.” 

Gebuhr’s mask in his words: “This mask shows how my mood can change daily thanks to my injury. Some of this is directly due to the injury, some is the effect of all the medication I must take. In addition, emotions brought about by the consequences of the injury. One day I might be excited, energetic and open a new business. The next day I am depressed and worrying about my money and my future. This bipolar tendency has unfortunately described my life for the past seven years.”

About Unmasking Brain Injury Project

The mission of the national project is to raise awareness to the prevalence and effects of traumatic brain injury. This is the second year for the project in Indiana. Masks displayed are from brain injury support groups across the state. 

“Brain injury is often unseen and silent, with the deficits often being invisible on the outside, including cognitive, emotional and behavioral deficits,” says Wendy Waldman, local support network leader for the resource facilitation department at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana. “The term ‘silent epidemic’ is used to characterize the incidence of brain injury worldwide.”

Heads or Tails/ Brain Injury Survivors of Indiana

What: A support group to serve the educational and social needs of 20- to 30-year-old adults living with traumatic (TBI) or acquired (ABI) brain injuries and their families.

Meets: 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month at Traders Point Christian Church, 6590 S. Indianapolis Rd., Whitestown. 

Info: or

For a list of statewide brain injury groups:

For more on the project:

— By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.
 Reach Benbow via email or on Twitter @danabenbow.