by Monita Syll '92
Some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Brom Wikstrom was born with a paint brush in his, although he didn't actually start painting in that fashion until he was twenty two years old.
Brom's father was a commercial artist and illustrator, and some of Brom's earliest memories are of sketching trips around the Puget Sound with his father, capturing the majesty and unique beauty of the Pacific Northwest. The primary grades used to frustrate Brom because even at that young age his ability to create pictures far surpassed what was being taught to his peers.
As he grew his work became more finished, he realized not only that his was an unusual talent, but that he would some day use it to earn his living.
This realization, coupled with a strong sense of adventure, led him, starting in high school, to head for parts unknown in the summertime. Working at odd jobs to support himself, he would spend his free time transfering the beauty of his surroundings to paper.
One such trip, to the Deep South when he was twenty-one, stands out among all the others, for it was in New Orleans that occured the tragic accident that forever changed his life. He and Bill, a childhood friend, had arrived there on Mardis Gras night, and had become so enamored of the city and it's people that they decided to stay awhile. They found a little apartment in the bend of the River, got jobs, and prepared to settle down to life in the Crecent City.
By mid-July the heat, coupled with the high humidity, can be really oppressive, and on this fateful Sunday morning when Brom awoke... but let's let him tell what happened.
Bill had been up for some time and was already on the levee right by our apartment, sunning himself. I could hardly wait to get out there, but swimming, not sunning, was what I had in mind. The Mississippi was living up to it's muddy reputation that day. The water line had receded some since the last time I'd gone swimming, but I knew where the drop-off was and I was only going to jump in and cool off.
I stripped the T-shirt off my sweaty back and kicked my shoes onto the ground, running towards the water at full speed. I sprang high to feel the air rush completely over my body, and I landed with a crash, hearing the water splash all around.
Suddenly I became aware of my inability to move. While still holding my breath I tried again and again to lift myself out of the water with absolutely no success. The pressure in my lungs was becoming unbearable, and I began to panic. I could hear Bill over me, asking what was wrong. In my silence I was screaming at him to turn me over, which he finally did, as the last of the precious oxygen escaped my mouth. 'I really did it this time,' was my first thought, 'I'll have to go to the hospital right away for treatment before going back to work tomorrow.
Brom's world had just come crashing down around his shoulders, and things would get worse- a lot worse- before they got better.
There were the screws driven into each side of his skull, with weights attached, to minimize movement; as his breathing became more labored, a suction tube was snaked down his nose and throat to collect what he could no longer cough up (this was only a temporary measure, and was replaced by an endo-tracheal tube inserted directly into his neck, preventing him from speaking); a bedsore on his tailbone would become so serious that it would require surgery; and an unsuccessful operation to fuse his neck vertebrae in order to relieve pressure on his spinal cord would result in an infection that almost killed him.
His mother and brother William flew down to New Orleans and were taking turns seeing to his needs. One day while they were both there something so strange occured that it is best told in Brom's own words:
'I'd been put in what was called a circle bed, designed so that I could be turned from my stomach to my back without further stress on my neck. But at six feet four I was too long for the contraption and in the middle of the procedure the straps holding me in place became loosened and I slipped down. I heard my mother cry out as the trache tube pressed against the bed and was torn from my neck.
Instantly, I could feel absolutely nothing, and the only thing I could see was a brilliant white light engulfing my entire field of vision, accompanied by an incredible sensation of traveling towards the source of this light. A warmth and a feeling of contentment filled my senses, and it would've been very easy to surrender to this state and follow where it was leading. Time became totally irrelevant and I realized that if I wished to be reunited with my body I'd have to somehow make a connection.
Without being able to feel what I was doing, I started sending messages to those parts of my body that I still had control of, shrugging my shoulders and blinking my eyes. Gradually the feeling of movement began to slow down and I knew that what I was doing was working. I then heard my brother's voice exorting me to return. The brilliant light began to fade, and people around me started to come into focus, except my mother. When I finally came back they told me that she was alright. She had fainted and been moved from the room.'
As a result of this mishap Brom's esophagus was punctured, which meant that he couldn't eat for fear of aggravating the infection, and he began to lose weight drastically. But finally the downward spiral of events had gone- as the song says-' about as fer as it could go', and by the middle of September his condition had stabilized enough for him to be transfered back to Seattle.
There, surrounded by family and friends he began what would be a long, slow road to recovery. During the next nine months, while doctors put his broken frame back into shape he suffered severe emotional trauma when he was told that he would never regain the use of his arms and legs. The news crushed him and he lapsed into a deep depression which lasted for weeks. But in spite of himself his body began to respond to treatment: his neck, after surgery, healed completely so that he was once again able to eat, and after an operation on his bedsore he was able to sit up for a couple of hours at a time.
It was during this phase of his recovery that he began using a stick held in his mouth to type, and in typical Brom-does-it-best fashion was soon up to ten words a minute. His parents had brought some of his artwork to the hospital to show to the staff and to decorate his room, and it was then that he realized that he could probably start painting again by holding the brush in his mouth.
'The first attempts were utterly frustrating, and I nearly gave up many times, but I'd be encouraged by my family or the new friends I was meeting in the hospital. By the time I was able to leave the hospital and begin leading a life free of all the medical support systems that I'd had for over a year I found that pursuing this fresh new aspect of my art was a great asset to me, for it fostered a determination not to let my condition get the better of me. The memory of my near death experience, coupled with the realization of how precious life is, made me decide to help others to become aware of their potential.'
John Moilanen, an artist friend of Brom's for many years, was to begin volunteering at Children's Hospital and asked Brom if he'd like to join him in teaching art to the patients twice a month. Brom accepted, intrigued with the possibility of working again, and the two young men and their art classes were a big success.
In time Brom took over the teen unit, and also worked in the rehabilitation unit. For the next year he worked there twenty hours a week, getting children to adjust to their physical state and directing them towards an improved, totally healthy vision.
By the 1970's Brom heard of the Association of Mouth and Footpainting Artists, and though he didn't feel his work was of a high enough quality for him to be accepted, he wrote to the organization requesting information. In due time (almost 5 years!) to his delight he was accepted and determined more than ever to polish his craft, working even harder than usual, and attempting to paint subjects he'd never before tackled.
Brom's life today is about as full as it can possibly be. For 2 hours each week he is a volunteer reader of the newspaper at the Library for the Blind in downtown Seattle, and has worked as receptionist to the Burke Museum of Natural History at the Univ. of Wash.
For the past several years Brom has spoken before the University of Wash. Dental School about his disability, as part of the school's program of Dentistry Care of Disabled and in exchange for this presentation Brom goes to the Dental school every 6 months to have his teeth cleaned. It was in this unlikely setting that love entered Brom's life in the summer of 1987.
Anne' was the lovely dental hygenist assigned to clean Brom's teeth, and in the course of a generally one-sided conversation, Brom discovered they had much in common. Anne', in addition to being a dental hygenist was also skilled in Shiatsu massage and when she offered her services to him,Brom, who had experienced this type of massage, was delighted to accept. He and the lovely lady fell in Love and in a little more than a year later they were married aboard a chartered yacht.
They live in what had been the neighborhood grocery store of Brom's youth. Completely renovated, Brom has the studio of his dreams to create his many paintings. Recently, his work was commissioned for the annual 'Toys for Tots' campaign for the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and he curated an international art exhibition during the 1990 Goodwill Games.
When Brom taught art to the young patients at Children's Hospital, one of the main things he tried to impress on them as they struggled to create a picture with which they could be satisfied was that there was no such thing as failure, only degrees of success.
This credo might well describe his own climb from the depths of despair to the heights of success that has been his at every turn. Brom Wikstrom his an artist and achiever who would not allow fate to prevent him from realizing his dreams. He feels that his most productive and effective years are still ahead of him, and he is living proof that when the human spirit strives to attain it's fullfillment, it will not be denied. Brom says that his goal is to make a difference in the quality of life for his family and others. There should be no doubt in anyone's mind about the accomplishment of that goal by this determined young man.