October 22, 2019
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How art helped one woman recover from traumatic brain injury

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Orono native Daryne Rockett has found enjoyment in art after suffering from a brain injury five years ago.

The day after Christmas, bright paint supplies and canvases collected in a corner of Daryne Rockett’s living room.

Daryne was working to complete the final touches of her art show, “The Art of Gratitude,” something she has been working on for the past two years.

Daryne didn’t want to be an artist. But after suffering a traumatic brain injury in January 2014, that changed. In fact, everything in Daryne’s life changed, making her show nothing short of remarkable.

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Daryne, or “HarpPoon” as she is known in roller derby, was practicing with her Central Maine Derby team when she and her coach went for a shoulder-to-shoulder hit, an offensive maneuver. Daryne knew the hit would come in hard, so she attempted to slow down, causing her head to come forward and the hit to go to her jaw instead. Despite the hit not being direct to the head, Daryne and her doctor said it caused her brain to bounce off the inside of her skull.

Daryne was diagnosed with a mild concussion at the emergency room. Although she hadn’t lost consciousness in the incident, she learned the injury would have a lasting impact and that she could never fully recover.

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Orono native Daryne Rockett has found enjoyment in art after suffering from a brain injury five years ago.

After experiencing memory problems the day after the crash, Daryne went to her doctor, who put her on complete brain rest. She couldn’t look at screens or go to work because it was too strenuous for the brain. She would be put on brain rest multiple times since the injury, from one week to up to 60 days at a time.

Throughout her recovery, Daryne couldn’t perform simple tasks for more than a few minutes at the time such as talking on the phone, cooking dinner or consult with a colleague or client. She would grow tired or nauseous, which her physical therapist learned was caused by blockage of fluids in her brain.

Initially, all Daryne could do was take walks, attend the wood stove, crochet and doodle designs.

“We don’t realize how much we have to do until something like this happens,” Daryne said.

Daryne was in and out of work for months and didn’t get back to her full duties until six to eight months ago. But Daryne said the most difficult symptom is her irritability, which she likened to a toddler because of her angry outbursts.

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Orono native Daryne Rockett has found enjoyment in art after suffering from a brain injury five years ago.

She no longer could play the harp because she found the tuning alone to be exhausting. Daryne, who has played professionally, found she couldn’t play at her regular Celtic jam sessions because it was tiring to ignore the background noises. Even a year ago, she couldn’t listen to her golden retriever, Kitaro, panting as the noise would run her down very quickly because she couldn’t filter out the noise.

“It was a big hold,” Daryne’s friend and fellow Celtic music player Heather MacLeod said. “Not only did we miss the beautiful harp music, but we missed a part of her.”

Daryne underwent physical therapy, which included vestibular therapy to help with her balance; cranial sacral therapy, which helped release built-up fluid in her skull and spine; and reiki. After seeing her cranial sacral therapist, Daryne would experience immediate relief and felt well rested. Meditation, Daryne said, was essential to her recovery. It helped her accept her circumstances, and it prepared her to take things one at a time.

Ten months into her recovery, Daryne started going to a specialist at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. Physiatrist Dr. John Lowry, who treated survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing, told her she had a normal recovery trajectory but that it would take years for her to be back to 100 percent.

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Orono native Daryne Rockett has found enjoyment in art after suffering from a brain injury five years ago.

But Daryne’s recovery trajectory significantly improved after Daryne switched to an anti-inflammatory diet in February of 2015. Daryne was previously on a low-carb diet and noticed how poorly she felt if she cheated. With an anti-inflammatory diet, Daryne eats only two meals per day. She makes her own bone broth with chicken feet and eats only locally sourced, grass-fed meats. An anti-inflammatory diet emphasizes the use of fruits, vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats throughout the day. Daryne aims to eat six to nine servings of vegetables every day.

Lowry said he hadn’t seen a recovery trajectory take off as hers did after her diet switch. A month after she switched to her diet, Daryne got cleared to work six hours per week. The biggest change she noticed was her energy level, which was the best since her injury.

“It was amazing,” Daryne said. “Besides my brain getting better, it was so much faster.”

Through her injury, many of her friends and colleagues had to adapt to her condition and absences such as taking her for rides and abstaining from playing music in the background.

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Orono native Daryne Rockett talks about the artwork that she will have in an upcoming show.

Kirk Grant, director at the Bangor Vet Center, says what he has learned the most from Daryne’s injury is to be patient and let go of expectations.

“When you work with someone that’s as dynamic and intelligent as Dayrne, it’s easy to expect a fast return or that’s she’ll be the same as she was prior to the injury,” Grant said.

Because strenuous activities were too much for Daryne, she started doodling Zentangle patterns — repetitive black-and-white shapes — as it brought calm to her mind, and she could finish it before she got too tired. Then she started making small mandalas.

Two years in, she started tracing her friends’ and family member’s dominant hand, filling the inside with patterns and coloring them in.

Eventually, Daryne went from drawing to painting, and from small pieces of paper to canvas. Daryne would start drawing patterns on canvas and would trace the hands in a certain position to represent that person. Daryne would then write a piece of prose on the outline of the hands.

Daryne decided to trace the hands as a way to recognize and thank those who have had a “hand” in her journey to recovery. Once Daryne created a collection of hands, she knew she wanted to share it with everyone and on the anniversary of her accident.

“It’s not just the hands, it’s not just the art, it’s the expression of gratitude,” Daryne said. “I wanted to celebrate the hands that had a hand in my recovery.”

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Orono native Daryne Rockett has found enjoyment in art after suffering from a brain injury five years ago.

On Jan. 5, Daryne’s “The Art of Gratitude” opened at the Wilson Center at the University of Maine, showcasing 15 canvases and 40 hand drawings for 107 guests. The show is about Daryne’s gratitude for those who helped her the past five years in her journey to recovery. Indeed, Daryne has a lot to be grateful for.

Some of the people represented in the show are her husband Jim, MacLeod and her cranial therapist Terry Hart.

“It’s a celebration of self. When we view the world that way, it’s life-changing,” Daryne said. “So the celebration of Jan. 5 is a celebration of something that feels bigger than me that has emerged.”

Five years after her injury, Daryne still experiences fatigue, irritability and is not able to learn information or remembers things as quickly. She plays the harp again but will be on medical leave indefinitely with her derby team. She’s now on the advisory board of the Brain Injury Association of America’s Maine Chapter — she spoke at their conference in 2017 — and shares her survivor story in an ongoing feature in its newsletter.

MacLeod says Daryne has been very forthcoming with sharing her journey to recovery with others and has used her circumstances to help with the growth of others.

“She has chosen gratitude as a way to heal. She’s proof of the resiliency of the human spirit and the human brain.”

“The Art of Gratitude” will be on display at the Wilson Center, University of Maine, until Friday, March 15.

This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s March  2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.



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