Going Blue for Brandi | Brandi’s Story

General, News, Success Story, UCLL, UMAP

Family has always been a central value for Brandi Garden. For over 30 years, she focused on raising two children and building a life with her husband, Doug. 

She remained close to her family, including her sister, aunts, uncles, and cousins. 

Even when life moved the family from Michigan to Montana for Doug’s job, the family support never wavered. 

And that support is what would help Brandi, as she searched to find her voice after a stroke left her with aphasia.

A Stroke at 50 Years Old

Brandi is only 50 years old. 

Her days were spent working as a case worker for the state of Montana, while her husband worked as a Border Patrol agent. Brandi and Doug were active in their community, getting together with friends for dinner and enjoying the outdoor amenities in Montana. 

However, life would suddenly change in May 2022. It started like any other day. Doug was already at work, as he worked the third shift. Brandi headed into work. She soon developed a painful migraine headache that wouldn’t go away. She eventually became more physically sick and went home. 

At home, she laid down to rest. When Doug came home, he heard a noise from the bedroom and noticed Brandi had fallen while trying to get out of bed. 

That’s when fear started to creep in. 

Aphasia is Here

“Immediately following the stroke, [the family] started to hear the term “non-verbal,” said Brandi’s sister, Michelle Ryan. “Not only was she not able to speak, she was unable to communicate by nodding/shaking her head, pointing, and was not able to read. But most troublesome, she couldn’t speak.”

When Brandi and Doug went to the hospital, they learned that the stroke had caused Brandi to develop Expressive Aphasia, a communication disorder, along with apraxia. While her intelligence was still intact, she would now struggle to process, use, and understand spoken and written language. 

After her stay in the hospital, Brandi was able to get into speech therapy right away, which was a relief for her and her family. However, there was another hurdle. Due to their living in a small rural town, there was no specialized Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) or aphasia-language therapy care nearby. Brandi and Doug were able to connect with a speech therapist who practiced two hours away and would meet the family in the middle. This meant that Brandi was only able to receive quality speech therapy for one hour a week, with a two-hour commute for each session. 

Her family began looking for more options with a focus on more intensive programs that could help Brandi. Her sister Michelle found the University of Michigan Aphasia Program (UMAP).

Brandon, Brandi and Brittany. Photo curtesy of Garden Family.

Not only is the University of Michigan Aphasia Program one of the few Intensive Comprehensive Aphasia Programs (ICAPs) in the United States but it is also located in Ann Arbor, which is conveniently located near much of Brandi’s family who still reside in Michigan.

Brandi and Doug are both originally from Michigan, Macomb County, to be specific. That’s where they began raising their family before Doug’s job took them to Montana thirteen years ago. 

Michelle created a GoFundMe online donation page to help raise money for Brandi’s family to attend UMAP. 

It is very difficult to find this level of intensive and individualized approach to aphasia therapy,” she wrote on the GoFundMe page. “With her returning home to Michigan, this is such a blessing for our family to be there to support her and witness firsthand the daily progress she will make!”

The donation page, titled Going Blue for Brandi, raised over $25,000; Doug and Brandi registered for the August 2023 session of UMAP. 

UMAP works on a session-by-session basis, so full-time clients receive 25 hours of therapy each week, combining individual therapy and group therapies with their primary Speech Language Pathologist as well as working with additional SLPs for a varied and richer aphasia recovery experience. 

The UMAP Difference

Brandi and Doug thrived during their time at the University of Michigan Aphasia Program. While it was tiring, it was also encouraging. 

Doug, Brandi, a family member and Brandon at the University of Michigan Aphasia Program. Photo curtesy of Garden Family.

“We loved all the encouragement and support we received while at UMAP,” said Doug. “It was amazing to see the four-to-five different therapists a day, [who] all had different techniques and [were] able to reach Brandi in a different way and connect with her.”

A unique component of the program is the focus on caregiver support. In each session, UMAP offers a series of group meetings for care partners of UMAP participants, that cover topics such as communication, caregiver concerns, resources, and more. 

Doug deeply appreciated this aspect of the program, as he “learned a lot of tricks and ways to communicate with Brandi,” and was also able to sit in on therapy sessions with her. 

Another distinctive aspect of this program is the focus on technology-focused education. UMAP clinicians help clients and families learn how to use different approaches to communicate. Brandi already had a Lingraphica tablet before coming to UMAP but was nervous and unsure how to use it. While at UMAP, the clinicians helped her practice using the tablet and she developed confidence in communicating with it. 

Family Support

Since the University of Michigan Aphasia Program is Michigan-based, many of Brandi’s family members were able to join her in person. 

Sister Michelle, aunt, cousin, mother-in-law, and son (Brandon) attended therapy sessions. On the weekends, Doug and Brandi traveled back to Macomb County to visit friends and family. 

Doug and Brandi with UMAP staff and other program attendees. Photo curtesy of Garden Family.

“It is so important for people with aphasia to have a strong support network, and Brandi has one of the strongest support systems I’ve seen, with seven different family members having made appearances in sessions to see her progress and learn how they can support Brandi’s communication rehabilitation at home,” said Kendra Peffers, a UMAP Speech-Language Pathologist Clinical Fellow and a main clinician who worked with Brandi.

“[Her family] are the people who make sure she has all of her communication tools available, who put in the hours at home to practice communication strategies, who are on the other end of Brandi’s text messages, and who make sure she is still able to participate in the things she enjoys most,” said Kendra. 

“It is easy to feel isolated when communication is a challenge, and that’s why support networks make all the difference for people with aphasia. I know that her family’s encouragement, support, and love have played a vital role in Brandi’s progress.”

Brandi completed the August 2023 session and celebrated with her family.

“It’s been an incredible journey with the most amazing speech therapists,” said her sister Michelle. “[They] have provided tools and resources to help Brandi in her continued efforts to build her language skills. Brandi has made significant and measurable progress. We are so thankful Brandi has been blessed with this opportunity. Brandi truly is a warrior and we are so proud of her determination!”

Staying Strong, Together

Throughout their life together, and especially after Brandi’s aphasia diagnosis, Brandi and Doug have leaned on each other for support and strength. 

When asked how Brandi inspires him, Doug had much to say: “She’s a fighter. She’s still Brandi, and she understands everything that’s going on. I do everything I can for her because I want her to be happy.”

They can still laugh together and enjoy each other’s company, even with the communication challenges. Spending time with Winnie, their German Shepherd dog is also a favorite activity.  Their daughter Brittany also moved back home, to offer additional family support. 

Doug, Brandi and Brittany at UMAP. Photo curtesy of Garden Family.

They were looking forward to returning to the University of Michigan Aphasia Program for another session before the end of 2023, and the progress she may be able to make with her solid foundation of family, her own strength, and her will to improve.

About the U-M Aphasia Program and UCLL

The U-M Aphasia Program (UMAP) provides intensive, comprehensive speech-language therapy for people with aphasia, caused by a stroke, brain injury, illness, or other neurological disorder. UMAP is part of  the University Center for Language and Literacy (UCLL), which is committed to helping people of all ages find meaningful ways to communicate. UCLL is part of the Mary A. Rackham Institute (MARI) at the University of Michigan.