Singing Again After Aphasia | Bruce’s Story

General, News, Success Story, UCLL, UMAP

“Would you wear a helmet, please? You really need to get a helmet.”

“Why? I know, but the good ones are expensive.”

“To protect your head. It’s your head.”

“I’ll think about it.”

These words would haunt Bruce and Jeanne Farrell. After that exchange, Bruce would go on to take a bike ride — without a helmet — and experience a fall and traumatic brain injury. Life would never be the same again.

Bruce and Jeanne. (Photo courtesy of Bruce Farrell.)

Bruce and Jeanne were enjoying their lives as empty nesters in Berkley, Michigan, a suburb north of Detroit. Bruce worked as a Proposal Director for an accounting firm. Jeanne worked part-time. On the side, Bruce also spent time playing in local bands. They enjoyed visiting their son when they could, who lived a few hours away.

Bruce also was an occasional bike rider. He enjoyed riding around his neighborhood and city, both to explore and for exercise. That’s just what he was doing in July 2020.  

That evening, he decided to go for a 10-mile bike ride. He let Jeanne know, and she asked him about wearing a bike helmet. He thought about it but didn’t wear one.

Bruce didn’t make it far on his ride. A block away from his house, an item in the road tripped his bike, causing Bruce to go headfirst over the handlebars and hit the curb.

The sound of an ambulance soon echoed throughout the neighborhood. Jeanne heard it from her house and decided to call Bruce, to let him know he should take a different route home to avoid it. He didn’t answer his phone, so she tracked him on a location-sharing app. 

Jeanne thought he must be helping out at the scene, so she followed his phone location to the fall site. She didn’t see Bruce anywhere and asked a police officer what was going on. That’s when she learned her husband was not assisting others, but he was the one receiving care. 

The impact from the bike crash sent Bruce into a coma, which lasted about a month. Jeanne was initially able to visit him in the hospital. However, after a few days, he contracted COVID-19, and Jeanne was prohibited from visiting him for 20 days (due to hospital protocol in mid-2020). 

What happened? Why am I here? 

These were Bruce’s initial thoughts after waking up from his coma. He could only communicate with Jeanne non-verbally, not even able to say “Yes” or “No”. 

This is when it hit Jeanne that something might be permanently wrong. 

“Bruce was still Bruce and could recognize me,” she said. “However, he couldn’t say anything. I was trying to help him make vocalizations (grunts, signs), and there was nothing.”

“When I came out of my coma, my aphasia was present to everyone”, Bruce said. “I couldn’t talk at first, and then I could only say “yes” or “no”. I knew my wife’s name, but that was about it. I knew I had a son, but I couldn’t say the word of his name (Matt). I knew I lived near the hospital, but didn’t know how to say where I lived. This was all frustrating.”

Jeanne asked the hospital staff to look into Bruce’s condition again, noting he was not speaking or making a single sound.

A specialist eventually came to check on Bruce and noted that while he did have damage to his vocal cords, they would heal. However, the hospital team noted that Bruce had developed aphasia as a result of his accident. 

Aphasia, a communication disorder, can affect a person’s ability to speak, read, write, and understand language. 

That’s when it fully sunk in: life would be different with this new challenge.

More Gains to be Found in Ann Arbor

After being in the hospital for more than 42 days, Bruce was finally able to return home. He began participating in outpatient speech therapy. He eventually had therapy 3-5 days a week, and Jeanne saw more gains in Bruce’s ability to communicate with the increased frequency of speech-language therapy. 

Jeanne began looking for other aphasia programs, to accompany his outpatient therapy work. She searched for key terms such as aphasia treatment and aphasia programs, which led her right to the University of Michigan Aphasia Program (UMAP). 

“Bruce already had a fondness for the University of Michigan, but I didn’t want to tell him how much the program cost, for fear he would say no,” Jeanne said. “However, I was desperate to try any way to help him gain (back) as many words as he could.”

And, initially, Bruce was hesitant about the idea. He wasn’t sure the extra cost would be worth it, on top of their current expenses – housing, medical bills, therapy, etc. 

Jeanne waited a couple of months and again asked Bruce to consider it. She focused on advocating for more therapy, telling him, “I can see the gains you’re making, but maybe your brain needs the challenges, and if we apply more intensity to your brain, it can only help.” Around that time, they also received extra financial support that made attending UMAP seem possible. 

With their monthly financial needs now met, they were able to jump into attending UMAP. 

The UMAP Difference

Bruce working with Gordon while at UMAP. (Photo courtesy of Bruce Farrell.)

Though they lived in Berkley, Michigan, which is only about an hour away from the University of Michigan Aphasia Program, Bruce and Jeanne decided to temporarily relocate to be closer to the program. They rented a house about two miles away so Bruce could drive or walk to the program each day.

“We decided to rent a house to give Bruce a different setting and keep him on his walking program,” said Jeanne. She noted that Bruce had been walking every day, to help with his healing process after his traumatic brain injury.

They started the intensive, individualized aphasia therapy program at UMAP, and quickly, any hesitations Bruce had about the cost evaporated. Two days after starting UMAP, Bruce recalled his thoughts from that first week “I’m glad we came. If I get better every day, this is going to be really good.” 

Jeanne shared the same impression: I feel like the investment was worth it. I don’t want to hold back any therapeutic techniques from Bruce’s recovery.”

“Attending UMAP was a revelation,” said Bruce. “Working with the UMAP team was very special to me. Every hour I was given new challenges. Every day. The therapists, SLPs, and the administration… each of them enhanced my learning with their efforts. I loved it.

Even after his time with UMAP as a client, Bruce still is a big supporter. So much so, that he comes back to program sessions to speak with current clients. He shares his aphasia experience, and how he’s doing now, and talks with the clients about their aphasia journeys. 

Bruce and Jeanne pictured with UMAP staff and other clients. (Photo courtesy of Bruce Farrell.)

“Current [UMAP] clients need to hear from other people with aphasia,” said Bruce. “I was encouraged by other people living with aphasia to keep fighting.  That’s what I hope to inspire in the current clients that I meet.”

Re-entering the Professional World

After his bike accident and time in the hospital, Bruce retired from his position to focus on his recovery. By the spring of 2023, Bruce had made gains where he was able to speak more fluently, due to his hard work and continued speech therapy progress. 

He set a goal to attend a professional conference, one hosted annually by the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP). Bruce had presented at this conference in the past and had even been on the board of directors. It would be a major milestone for him to return to the conference. 

The conference organizers reached out to Bruce to see if he would be interested in participating in the conference. Bruce and the organizers brainstormed how to welcome Bruce back into the professional organization and surprise the attendees. Bruce and Jeanne were flown to Orlando, FL (where the conference was held), and stayed in a separate hotel to keep his attendance a secret. 

Bruce filmed a video, with the help of the University of Michigan Aphasia Program, to play during the conference, so he could update attendees on where he had been, and share his hopes to attend in 2024. However, after the video, he surprised the crowd of over 1,200 people and participated in a question-and-answer session.   

Bruce’s surprise appearance at the conference was a big hit and was a personal highlight for him and Jeanne. Bruce, as he was able to reconnect with many of his industry colleagues, and Jeanne, as she was able to see Bruce in his professional community. 

Bruce participating in a Q-and-A session at the conference. (Photo courtesy of Bruce Farrell.)

In Jeanne’s words, Bruce is a “rockstar” in the proposal management community.

“I didn’t understand what he meant to that professional organization”, she said. “People were coming up to him saying ‘Oh my god, you’re Bruce Farrell.’ I was positively stunned. He could have said only two words and the reception probably would have been the same.” 

In Bruce’s former role, he educated others on giving presentations. Now, he was preparing his own, using different techniques in preparing to navigate public speaking with aphasia. One tactic he used was getting the list of questions beforehand and practicing his answers repeatedly. 

Which, as Bruce noted, is helpful for all people who are preparing to present or speak, but also specifically helpful for people with aphasia in everyday life. 

Moving Forward — Together

Today, Bruce and Jeanne are optimistic about the future and his continued progress. A new goal for Bruce is to present at the 2024 APMP conference, besides just attending. Jeanne is looking forward to more adventures together, including celebrating their son’s wedding.

Bruce continues to play music as well, playing in bands with long-time friends. He recognizes the importance of finding activities that can bring joy and allow for expression, even with new challenges brought on by aphasia. 

Bruce and Jeanne in Florida for the conference. (Photo courtesy of Bruce Farrell.)

This sentiment is shared by Jeanne. “People with aphasia are so much more than aphasia”, she said. “Language is important, but people with aphasia have more to give, even when they can’t use language.”

Bruce and Jeanne are also enjoying getting back to moving through life as partners. For a few years after Bruce’s accident and while taking care of him, Jeanne took on a new title: care partner. Jeanne became solely responsible for all the decisions in their household, including making sure bills were paid, the house was taken care of, and managing Bruce’s medical care. 

“I needed to do everything for him, but still needed to hold up our lives together,” she said. “It was overwhelming and life-altering at first, especially when the seriousness [of his injury] kicked in.”

Jeanne’s experience is somewhat common for a care partner — to suddenly be thrust into a different role and to take on keeping the day-to-day responsibilities while also dealing with significant change and emotional stress.

Aphasia doesn’t affect just one person, but the entire family and/or support system as well. Everyone involved has to adjust, and figure out how to move forward.

They both are grateful to have each other along the journey.

“My wife is just the best you can have in this world,” Bruce says. “She has always been right by me. Even when I was in the hospital and wasn’t talking, she was speaking for me, or she would be waiting and patient for me. She still does it today.”

Jeanne shares the same sentiment. 

“Bruce inspires me with how he approaches the challenge [of living with aphasia],” said Jeanne. “He doesn’t let it limit him. I don’t have to be protective of him. He’s not afraid.” 

What’s Next?

Bruce (right) playing guitar and singing in one of his bands. (Photo courtesy of Bruce Farrell.)

“I’m getting better every day,” Bruce says. “Music came [back] to me suddenly and then I came back to what I was. I have friends, and that’s good too. I can read now, which is gratifying. I’ve gotten all these little things that have come along, and they give me hope. Maybe, in one year or in the future, I can work again.”

End Note 1: If you are interested in learning more about Bruce’s music, you can visit his website at

End Note 2: Bruce and Jeanne were featured in a short documentary produced by Lingraphica, called “Their Words: An Aphasia Documentary Series.” If you’d like to hear Bruce and Jeanne speak, watch the video at

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.