March 23, 2017
By Michaela Gibson Morris
TUPELO – Traumatic brain injury can be a hidden disability, but for Richard Stafford it’s a chance to let the light of Christ shine.
“I wanted people to see God is the only reason I’m alive,” said the 27-year-old Pontotoc man who has made significant strides since he was injured seven years ago. “I thank God every day.”
Stafford was one of several people living with traumatic brain injuries who participated in the Unmasking Traumatic Brain Injury project through the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services. The masks were on display at the department’s Tupelo district office Wednesday as part of National Traumatic Brain Injury Day.
“It allows brain injury survivors an opportunity to share their stories,” said Allison Lowther, who serves as the department’s coordinator for the traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury trust fund. “It’s often an invisible disability.”
Stafford decorated his mask to reflect the power of prayer and his love of Mississippi State University. Others incorporated bright colors and words of encouragement. Stafford enjoyed the group project, but he won’t be picking up the brushes full-time.
“I’d rather be hunting than painting,” Stafford said.
There are nearly 1,000 Mississippians living with traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, said Anita Naik, director of the office of special disability programs.
“The goal is to reintegrate individuals back into the community and help them live as independently as possible,” Naik said.
Stafford was an active 20-year-old when he wrecked his truck while driving under the influence. He was in a coma for three weeks and unable to respond for months. Doctors initially told his mother he would never talk, walk or function independently. The hardest times were when he felt trapped in his slowly healing brain and body, unable to communicate, he said.
“When I gave it all to God, it got better,” Stafford said.
He slowly regained ability to use his left side, his ability to talk, to eat. He went from being completely dependent on others to being able to move himself into his wheelchair and button a shirt one handed. He can take steps with the support of a walker. He has become an ordained preacher.
Stafford has an incredible drive to be as independent as possible, said his personal care attendant Kerry Nelson, who is also the pastor of Grace Memorial Baptist Church. He works every day, to take more steps, to improve his speech and get stronger.
“Never give up, never quit,” has become his slogan, Stafford said. “With God, all things are possible.”