My father suffered a traumatic brain injury three years ago from a bicycle accident. In addition to the cognitive changes (i.e., difficulty with memory, problem solving, reasoning, organization, etc.) he suffered, my dad also acquired aphasia.
Looking back to the initial event, the first few weeks in the hospital were particularly difficult as his words often didn’t make sense and he would perseverate or “get stuck” on certain words. I remember one day he continually pleaded, “I want my blanket”; however, it took my family pointing to every object in his room until we discovered that blanket actually meant headphones. We endured many more of these painstakingly frustrating moments for all parties involved—instances in which my dad knew exactly what he needed, but was unable to communicate this in words. However, in spite of his difficulties, my dad insisted and deserved to be a part of all medical discussions. My family and I worked very hard to communicate to the medical professionals the importance of treating him with respect and not as a “little kid”. Despite our best efforts, he later told us that one of the most frustrating parts of the hospital experience was having doctors and nurses speak about him instead of to him.
Some of the greatest initial challenges were figuring out ways for him to effectively communicate his thoughts and to find ways to motivate him to exercise his brain through meaningful “high-level” activities. We did this by engaging him in games of chess and his progress in using the pieces appropriately. Eventually, he was able to beat me again, as he usually did! We would also read him abbreviated current events articles then ask him questions to work on his memory skills discretely. When he had word-finding difficulties, we assist him by giving him the first letter (e.g., /k/ for Kelly) or by writing the word. With motivating activities and a steady routine, my dad began to rapidly progress. I still notice improvements every time I see him.
Although the impact of my dad’s injury was tremendous and new challenges continue to arise, my experience working with him inspired me to become a speech-language pathologist. I witnessed firsthand the tremendous progress that is possible with meaningful activities, a steady routine, and the knowledge about the brain’s tremendous ability to adapt and grow, regardless of age. As a daughter of an individual with aphasia and a recently graduated student with an MS in speech-language pathology, I have learned that with determination, flexibility, and love and support from family and friends, the recovery process never ends.
Jenna Schaeffer, MS in speech-language pathology,
Teachers College, Columbia University.