On June 7, 2006, while on a lunch break as a special education instructor with the Thames Valley District School Board, Vanessa Zita Vanderidder was found dead along the side of her car. Or at least, that is what first responders pronounced her when they arrived on the scene. A 20-pound rock fragment had bounced into her open window and shattered her skull, leaving her frontal temporal lobe exposed.
Miraculously, she regained consciousness after being intubated at the scene.
“I remember looking over at the rock that had hit me. I felt sure I had broken my neck. I struggled to talk, to ask them to call my mom. I didn’t think I would survive,” she said.
Weeks later, after several emergency and planned surgeries, Vanderidder found herself on the other side of years of therapy and rehabilitation. She relearned how to walk and talk again – and then, somehow, for some reason, started to paint.
Today, the work of this self-described ‘accidental artist’ will surround a group of Western researchers dedicated to reducing the burden of brain injuries and disorders.
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In September, 2016, BrainsCAN received a seven-year, $66-million investment from the Government of Canada, through the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, to enable Western researchers, along with national and international academic and commercial partners, to develop and deliver evidence-based assessments and interventions for the diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the brain.
“This initiative affects people at all points in their lives – babies born with hearing deficits, school-aged children struggling to understand mathematical concepts, teenagers suffering from traumatic brain injury and seniors experiencing cognitive decline,” explained Lisa Saksida, BrainsCAN scientific co-director.
Organizers say BrainsCAN’s core infrastructure and innovative funding opportunities allow researchers to radically transform our understanding of brain disorders and deliver effective solutions to the grand challenge of maintaining brain function across the lifespan. This knowledge will lead to evidence-based interventions in the classroom, in the operating room and in the clinic.
BrainsCAN, they say, will accelerate Canada’s ability to deliver effective solutions to the challenge of maintaining optimal brain function across the lifespan.
“We’re laying the foundation for the widespread sharing of neuroscience research,” said Fay Harrison, Executive Director of BrainsCAN. “The brain is the most wonderful, complex structure – it’s going to take diverse teams to bring the breakthroughs to this grand challenge. The breadth of our approach is unrivaled, we have teams that will tackle brain disorders across the lifespan.”
The burden of brain disorders affects nearly 3.6 million Canadians, diminishes quality of life and creates an enormous burden on society and on our health-care system. Neurological and psychiatric disorders together account for $22.7 billion per year in health-care costs in Canada.
Vanderidder was one of those people.
She faced a long road to recovery – and a destination that was uncertain. What could she do – who would she be – at the end of it? Then, a year into her rehabilitation, she found herself employing a strategy she had used with her own clients.
“As a special-needs teacher, I had helped individuals with physical and cognitive injuries, including those with a TBI (traumatic brain injury). It was so strange to be the one needing help. But I started finger-painting as a way of dealing with the paralysis in my right arm and hand.”
She tried to return to the career she loved, but she quickly learned she was a new person. Sensory hypersensitivity and brain fatigue were constant companions.
“I was obsessing about the dots on the carpet; I couldn’t ignore them and focus on my job. My frustration boiled over and I confessed to my mom later, ‘I can’t do this anymore. The kids are smarter than me now. Seriously, how can I help them?’”
French artist Henry Matisse said “creativity takes courage.” For Vanderidder, it was starting over that demanded daring. She was always creative and tactile, playing the piano and enjoying the sensory stimulation exercises she designed for her clients.
“After realizing I couldn’t go back to work, painting become much more important to me. It was a way to escape my chronic pain. I don’t use a brush most of the time; I love the flow and feel of the paint between my fingers.”
Over the years, she broadened her art form from oil finger-painting to using a mixed and varied medium. Vanderidder’s approach to her abstract art is as unique as her style. Working on more than one canvas at a time, she has turned her inability to focus exclusively on one task from a weakness into a strength that creates beauty.
“I get lost in every emotion when I paint – joy, love, pain and rage. It’s also very physical for me. Paint splattered is the least of it. At times, I have literally attacked the canvas.”
Vanderidder’s works will hang among Western’s BrainsCAN group, located on the sixth floor of the Western Interdisciplinary Research Building. The $47-million facility houses the Brain and Mind Institute, BrainsCAN and the Rotman Institute of Philosophy, as well as five general-use classroom and study spaces.
In total, three of Vanderidder’s painting will hang in the space – Driving Home, White Out and Black Submarine.
When the idea was first broached, it did not take long to see how BrainsCAN and Vanderidder were a perfect match.
“Vanessa is committed to giving back to the community and to sharing her journey. Now, couple that with the research BrainsCAN is doing,” Harrison explained. “We both saw this as a great opportunity. Having Vanessa’s work hanging in the office is an important reminder to all of us of the impact BrainsCAN research will have on people in our local community and across Canada.
“As Vanessa has said, 10 years post-traumatic brain injury, she has a career again. She is an artist. She is a survivor.”
For Vanderidder, her path to “placing part of myself in this special place” has been nothing short of extraordinary.
“I’m so honoured one of my canvases will be taking up residence in the new home of BrainsCAN. This collection of brain researchers here in London are kicking ass around the world. As a survivor of a traumatic brain injury, I am excited about the good they will do for those of us with this ‘invisible illness.”
She is quick to point out “I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of my mom, my friends and Marti, my wife. Marti not only takes care of me when I need it, she’s my manager, my storyteller and my muse.”
Marti takes photos of Vanderidder’s work and posts it on the Instagram account and website she created.
Today, Vanderidder’s art has been shown in local galleries, as well as rented out for commercials and films. She has teamed up with a local interior designer who pairs her work with her home designs.
“I still miss what other people take for granted – turning off the alarm in the morning, driving to work and running errands. But I am so grateful for the life I’m living. As a peer mentor for others with TBI, and now this relationship with the people at BrainsCAN, I’m helping to educate others about it. Even though TBI changed who I was, I’m learning about who I am now and what I have to offer.”
IF YOU GO
The university officially celebrates the opening of the Western Interdisciplinary Research Building (WIRB) at 11 a.m. Friday in the building’s main floor atrium. The $47-million facility houses the Brain and Mind Institute, BrainsCAN and the Rotman Institute of Philosophy, as well as five general-use classroom and study spaces. Certified LEED Gold, the seven-storey, state-of-the-art building contains dry laboratories, teaching and research space, classrooms and a public plaza within its 118,000 square feet.