My Mom’s Journey

On August 26, 2008, just 2 weeks short of her 75th birthday, my mother, Ollie Baljkas, suffered a triple infarction CVA, a stroke that damaged 2 of the speech centres of the brain. Her stroke-related hemiplegia has almost disappeared, but her expressive (or fluent) aphasia continues. From birth, my mom never had an easy life but that just made her a better fighter. She wasn’t giving up now and I wouldn’t give up on her. Out of the hospital, we started private therapy with Allison Baird, a local SLP expert. My mom progressed slowly, working with Allison in weekly and then bi-weekly sessions, aided by daily at home exercises with which I assisted her. Spunky as ever, Mom grew tired of printing exercises after a month or so, and showed us she wanted to learn to write again by signing her signature several dozen times one evening, on any scrap piece of paper she could find. We started writing exercises — using free downloads from the Internet that I supplemented and customised, ones designed by a teacher to teach kids writing — the next day. She was so proud. One characteristic of her expressive aphasia that many people find difficult is reversal of opposites. For example, we often get “yes” for “no” (or vice versa) as well as, my father’s favourite, “Mommy” for “Daddy”. Her sense of humour has been present throughout: my favourite example was when asked to repeat the phrase ‘the husband and the wife’ she gave us “the husband and the right”! The most difficult part of her aphasia for both her and any listeners is the damage to the speech motor centre. This infarction basically ‘burnt’ the word “wait” (the last thing she was saying as her stroke ‘hit’) into the ‘buffer’ of her brain, so that when she speaks, she normally articulates only the word “wait” (sometimes “away”). Even though her utterances are full of cadence and expression, having just one word to go on and having to guess at topic can frequently lead to confusion and frustration. When she gets vexed enough though, we do get other words (!), as well as her favourite phrase “stupid men.” It continues to amaze me how words, phrases and sentences make their way out given that the model would suggest my mom shouldn’t be able to speak at all. Yet, when taking part, for example, in a listing game during one of her speech therapy group’s sessions, where the topic was beverages, someone said “wine” to which my mother, no longer able to have any alcohol because of her post-stroke medications, promptly added, “well, that’s more like it!” which had the whole group laughing and clapping. In closing, keep that anecdote in mind, folks: no matter how shut off your family member or client may seem, there is still a lot going on in their minds and any bridge we can help them build to express themselves again can bring them and those around them great joy. Despite the losses our aphasics have suffered, there is still the possibility for communication and for happiness in being able to reach out to others.