The Power of a Smile

Having the right support makes the difference between just surviving and thriving

A smile is one of the few forms of nonverbal communication that can transcend culture boundaries. A smile indicates life, happiness and hope. But is it possible to keep smiling when tragedy strikes?

Brandon Fairchild was a happy-go-lucky 12-year-old, ready to lift your spirit with a joke or one of his signature smiles. One afternoon, he came home with flu-like symptoms and a massive headache. His mother, Shelly Woltjer, took Brandon to a doctor three times before a CAT scan revealed that he had a brain tumor. Brandon immediately went through a seven-hour surgery to remove the tumor.

Due to the sensitive location of the tumor, the doctors could only remove 80 percent of it. However, a still-smiling Brandon was cleared to go back to school and even join swimming. Two months after being home, Brandon collapsed at school with a brain aneurysm. Following a surgery to repair the aneurysm, Brandon and his family returned home just before Christmas.

The first thing he wanted to do was see his best friend, but he only took a few steps into his friend’s house before collapsing again due to another aneurysm. “He was a trooper,” Shelly said. “He never asked ‘Why me?’.”

After the third surgery, Shelly contacted the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota’s Resource Facilitation program for support. “The Resource Facilitator helped answer my questions, gave me advice on finances, and helped connect my family to the services we needed,” said Shelly.

Shelly has noticed some changes with Brandon’s behavior since the incidents, such as impulsiveness and inability to understand his limitations.. “But he still has his great sense of humor!” laughed Shelly.

Today, Shelly is participating with local professionals to initiate a support group for others in Kandiyohi County who are dealing with brain injury. “We greatly appreciate all the professionals and individuals we have met along the way and acknowledge how valuable those encounters have been,” says Shelly. Shelly is also a Mentor as part of the Peer/Mentor Support Connection program at the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota. “Coping with a brain injury is hard for everyone,” said Shelly. “It’s easy to feel like you are the only one with this situation. I wanted to be a Mentor to show people they are not alone and provide hope for the future.”

After all of the ups and downs, Shelly, Brandon, and their family have a gained a lot. “You really learn how important family and friends are when you go through something like this,” said Brandon. Shelly agrees. “If you can keep your family strong, you can get though it.” Out of all the hardship, pain and loss, what is most interesting is what Brandon has managed to keep—his smile.

Shelly has noticed some changes with Brandon’s behavior since the incidents, such as impulsiveness and inability to understand his limitations.. “But he still has his great sense of humor!” laughed Shelly.

Today, Shelly is participating with local professionals to initiate a support group for others in Kandiyohi County who are dealing with brain injury. “We greatly appreciate all the professionals and individuals we have met along the way and acknowledge how valuable those encounters have been,” says Shelly. Shelly is also a Mentor as part of the Peer/Mentor Support Connection program at the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota. “Coping with a brain injury is hard for everyone,” said Shelly. “It’s easy to feel like you are the only one with this situation. I wanted to be a Mentor to show people they are not alone and provide hope for the future.”

After all of the ups and downs, Shelly, Brandon, and their family have a gained a lot. “You really learn how important family and friends are when you go through something like this,” said Brandon. Shelly agrees. “If you can keep your family strong, you can get though it.” Out of all the hardship, pain and loss, what is most interesting is what Brandon has managed to keep—his smile