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The accidental artist

  • DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Will Heffner, Andreas, created a Goth-style car for his son. The decorative skull in front is impaled by a spike to acknowledge the brain injuries that changed Heffner's life.
    DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Will Heffner, Andreas, created a Goth-style car for his son. The decorative skull in front is impaled by a spike to acknowledge the brain injuries that changed Heffner's life.
Published March 08. 2013 05:02PM

Will Heffner is somebody new.

He can't remember when it happened. It's a blank in his mind.

But the Andreas man realizes he is no longer the same person.

Sure, he has the same name and the same body. But he's altogether new.

The man he once was is gone.

"The Will Heffner that I was is dead," he says. That person disappeared in an accident at age 27.

Will was a strong, hard-working manual laborer who dug ditches for a firm under contract with a major utility.

But on May 20, 2004, a terrible event took place that would reshape his life.

"I went to my mom's to pick up tomato plants," he says. Some of the guys at work were into tomatoes and so Heffner figured he'd help them out. That much he can remember.

On the way, a driver in a large SUV smashed into Heffner's classic 1967 Ford Mustang. It happened along Industrial Road near Allentown. Heffner, an Orefield native, was critically injured.

"I broke my neck, five ribs, had three fractures of the skull, and a broken temple and eye socket," says Heffner, 35.

He suffered frontal lobe swelling of the brain and required a craniotomy. That's a surgical operation in which a bone flap is temporarily removed from the skull in order to access the brain.

Heffner was unable to swallow and talk, and was placed into a medically induced coma at Lehigh Valley Hospital.

But he fought and beat the odds. He survived. Eventually, he was admitted to Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Center's brain injury program.

For his wife, the former Angie Knappenberger of Germansville, it was the start of a slow climb back to normalcy, or what would become the new normal, at their Millhead Road bi-level home.

"Our daughter was only eight months at the time," she says, recalling how family and friends pitched in at the household to allow Angie to spend time at the hospital.

Heffner's injuries were so severe that he completely lost his speech. He was capable of uttering only one word: "Hi."

"I had to relearn how to talk," he says.

Angie points out that therapists were forced to initiate treatment at the most basic levels.

"The caseworker said they'd start just like a baby. They taught him how to step into a bathtub," she says.

The doctors also warned that a special part of her husband's brain had been impacted.

"They said he got knocked right in the personality."

New man emerges

As Heffner slowly improved, the man who emerged was different from the man Angie had married. He had been a moderate, mild individual with strong mechanic aptitude.

Without question, he was changed. His new personality is more charged. Where previously Heffner had been an even-keeled type of man, he is now emotional and subject to mood swings.

"I get mad and sad," he says, and the triggers can be unpredictable.

Luckily, Angie knows how to deal with the "new husband" she was given.

A sensitive, caring individual, Angie is employed at Lehigh Valley Hospital Center as a patient observer. She is finely attuned to the special needs of those suffering illness and injury. Angie has compassion and fortitude to deal with any situation, especially with the man she adores.

"We get along good," she says - always a pillar of strength in support of the special man who defines her days.

As for Heffner, he takes medication and still battles after-effects of his life-changing accident: recurrent headaches, double vision, balance issues; and he has weakness on his right side. Plus his speech is impaired, likely permanently.

"Some of my speech is messed up because I can't curl my tongue," he explains. "You have to curl your tongue (to form certain words) and I can't."

Heffner now relies on disability compensation but has been able to return to less physical work on a part-time basis.

His injuries, however, resulted in a delightful surprise which surfaced during the recovery process.

Heffner's brain trauma sparked in him a flair for art and creativity, unlike anything seen in his prior life. He is able to imagine and invent. He feels at home with all things artistic.

His creations adhere to a style consistent with expressionism and abstract art. He can paint and sculpt, and create clocks, lamps and furniture.

He doesn't use a pattern or instructions, but relies on instinct, an inner sense. He says all of it is new to him, as his prior interests were strictly mechanical - cars and motors.

"I thought art was a waste of time, and now art is almost the world to me, next to my family," he claims.

Elizabeth Halenar of Lehigh Neuropsychiatry has worked with Heffner and believes his creativity may have been latent. In other words, his artistic skill might have been there all along in the recesses of the mind.

"After the injury, those attributes become more pronounced," she told the TIMES NEWS.

Whatever the case, Heffner calls his gift "an accidental talent."

For him, art is magically therapeutic and interpretive. He hopes to relay its importance to the couple's two children, Mya 9, and Tyler, 4.

He recently completed a celebratory watercolor composed of brilliant hues dotted on canvas, a work suggestive of confetti one might experience in a ticker-tape parade.

"I did it to make my daughter happy," he says.

Today, Heffner is a new man. Yes, there are still struggles to overcome. Each day brings its ups and downs.

But he sees a sense of purpose in most every little thing.

And Will Heffner understands that our days spent with purpose are the most valuable days of our lives.

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