Learning to read, write and speak again after stroke

Frank Austin practises reading his four-year-old son’s books to be ready to read the stories when his son gets home from preschool. The Elmira, Ont., man also does exercises in children’s grammar books to get better at writing and putting together sentences.

Frank Austin

Frank Austin

ELMIRA, Ont. — Frank Austin practises reading his four-year-old son’s books to be ready to read the stories when his son gets home from preschool.

The Elmira, Ont., man also does exercises in children’s grammar books to get better at writing and putting together sentences.

Language is a challenge for Austin ever since suffering a stroke more than two years ago. While he soon regained his physical abilities, he’s still recovering his ability to communicate.

Austin has aphasia, a disorder caused by damage to the parts of the brain that control language.

The damage is most commonly the result of a stroke, but can also be caused by head injuries, infection, tumours or dementia. The location and extent of the brain damage determines the severity and type of language problems. Aphasia impairs the expression and understanding of speech, along with reading and writing.

“Aphasia is a loss of your language, not your intellect,” said Austin, who turned 45 earlier this month.

He has made a lot of gains with his dedicated effort to rebuild his language skills, but still it’s a challenge.

“Most of the time I can mask it,” he said. “But it’s a struggle every time I go out.”

Austin woke up in the middle of the night in April 2008, realizing quickly he had suffered a stroke.

“I couldn’t move,” Austin said. “I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t do anything.”

His wife called an ambulance. By the next day in hospital he was able to move, although quite weak. But damage caused by the stroke was apparent as Austin struggled to understand people and find the words he wanted to say.

“Everything would be jumbled,” he said.

He knew what he wanted to say but could not express it because words would get stuck and sentences he managed to get out were muddled.

The stroke came just days before Austin was set to start a new job working with developmentally challenged children. Suddenly he was unable to work and stuck at home while waiting to meet with a speech pathologist at a rehabilitation centre.

“When I was home, I was lost,” Austin said. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Reading was slow and tiring, and talking on the phone was tough. Finally he began speech therapy and over the next nine months, Austin began regaining lost skills. Since then he’s been working on his own at home for three or four hours a day.

Now he’s doing remarkably well, although he stops occasionally when speaking to think of a word or formulate a sentence.

“It’s hard sometimes,” Austin said. “It’s even worse when writing.”

And numbers remain elusive. When trying to figure out a number, he’ll count on his fingers. He’s optimistic his determination will help him continue to improve.

Austin is acutely aware of how the condition makes him appear to people who aren’t aware of aphasia and how language can be affected by an unseen disability.

“It’s embarrassing,” he said.

Austin speaks to groups when asked and he started a website at www.kwstrokesurvivor.com to explain the condition and hopefully bring together people with aphasia. He’s also volunteering with a local peer support program, Linking Survivors with Survivors, which connects new stroke patients with survivors.

The few job interviews he’s had since the stroke have not gone well and Austin isn’t sure he’ll ever be able to return to work. That’s why he’s focusing his efforts on his website and thinking about starting an informal group to get together and chat, both for the support and practice.

“If I can’t get a job again, I’m going to help other people.”

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