Waking Up With Aphasia | Al’s Story

General, News, Success Story, UCLL, UMAP

Waking up in an intensive care unit (ICU) would be a scary experience for anyone. Waking up in an ICU and not being able to speak? Even scarier. 

Al and Gretchen (photo courtesy of Gretchen).

In 2020, Al and Gretchen were enjoying life in northern Michigan as a retired couple. Both former educators, they enjoyed having more free time to spend with their children and grandchildren. Both were in their early 80s, and neither had medical issues that slowed them down.

However, in January 2021, Al woke up in an ICU hospital bed. He had suffered a stroke that morning and was taken to the Traverse City Hospital. He couldn’t verbalize a single word. Like many who experience a stroke, Al had acquired the communication disorder aphasia. 

“I was so miserable,” said Al. “I prayed that God would take me. I thought, ‘I’ve had a good life, I don’t want to live like this.’” 

While at the hospital, Al was dealing with the effects of the stroke — and aphasia — largely without his support network as COVID-19 restrictions limited access. However, he worked with speech-language pathologists and nurses to practice speaking again. It was hard work, he said, especially without  Gretchen by his side, as she could not be in person for many of the sessions due to the COVID-19 restrictions at the hospital.

Al and Gretchen credit neurosurgeon Gary B. Rajah, M.D., for saving Al’s life, and being able to care for Al locally. Prior to Dr. Rajah’s arrival in Traverse City in 2020, stroke patients had to be flown by helicopter to Grand Rapids, MI. The couple doesn’t believe Al would have survived such a helicopter flight. 

Al and Gretchen also participated in the Mary Free Bed at Munson Healthcare in-person rehabilitation program. Their specialized program focuses on rehabilitation for patients who have suffered a brain injury. Al was an in-patient for nine weeks. 

During this time, a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) they were working with recommended  the University of Michigan Aphasia Program (UMAP) for further aphasia treatment.  Gretchen recalled when the SLP referred them to the U-M Aphasia Program, they noted it was “the best program anywhere and if we could afford it, we should go there.” 

The U-M Aphasia Program Experience and Time for Homework

In the summer of 2021, Gretchen reached out to the U-M Aphasia Program to see if Al would be a good fit and applied for the virtual teletherapy option. With this, Al could participate in individualized aphasia therapy — from the comfort of their home. 

Al began working with Keli Licata, M.A., CCC-SLP, a senior Speech-Language Pathologist at the U-M Aphasia Program, twice a week. 

Gretchen said Keli was “very sensitive” and adapted her approach with Al as needed.

“She understood Al’s frustration at times while helping him work through it,” Gretchen said. 

Keli helped bring a sense of joy and light-heartedness to sessions, even as Al was relearning common words. 

“What struck me most about Al and Gretchen is what a strong team they are,” shared Keli. “Al worked incredibly hard during his recovery, and Gretchen supported him every step of the way – from helping him with his homework and using her background in education to find and implement additional resources and activities to providing never-ending reassurance, encouragement, and support.”

While they had to pay out-of-pocket for therapy, Al and Gretchen said they did not regret it for anything, and that the virtual therapy from UMAP made the difference. 

“Where would I be if I hadn’t done that?” Al wondered. “I really don’t know.”

While working with Keli, Gretchen also jumped at the chance to help Al learn to regain communication skills. Before retiring, she was an elementary school teacher, and she put her lesson-planning skills to work. 

She ordered language and communication resources to use around the house, such as flashcards, images, etc. She created assignments and homework for Al, writing sentences that she challenged him to finish. 

Every day, we would have class: morning, afternoon, and night,” said Gretchen. She used many of the same tools, including:

  • Picture flashcards of people doing things such as kids swinging on a playground or someone riding a bike. 
  • Taping the ABCs to a door along with numbers 1 to 10.
  • Playing the game Connect Four to build dexterity.
  • Asking Al situational questions like ‘A man is walking with an animal on a strap. What do you think he is doing?’
  • Playing Scrabble to build words.

Al also credits his professional background with helping him regain his communication skills. He majored in speech in college and had a professional life full of public speaking and writing. As he grew in his educational career, he progressed from teacher to principal to school superintendent. 

Life Is Different, But Still Moving Forward

After years spent working with students, laughing with family, and talking with Gretchen, life is harder now that Al can’t share his thoughts as easily as he used to.

“It’s so strange that I have everything in my head, and now it won’t come out,” he said.

Today, Al can write again, but much slower than before. He writes in a journal every day. He also can read again, but now only by focusing on one word at a time. He used to enjoy reading, but now it’s tedious and not as pleasurable.

Bowls Al has created in his workshop (photo courtesy of Gretchen).

Al has also had to work hard to regain his vision strength after his stroke. He went to Mark Noss, O.D., who provided Al with computer exercises to work on his eye-tracking ability and his peripheral vision.

While these new challenges could get him down, he has shifted his focus to expressing himself and spending his time in different ways, including woodworking. He has an at-home workshop and spends a lot of time there. He makes different pieces including bowls, and his work has been on display in local art galleries. 

Al said in the woodshop, he doesn’t have to talk, read or write; he just focuses on creating. 

Al and Gretchen also enjoy spending time with their three children and grandchildren. They have a strong focus on family, and faith, and continue to find joy in life, even with Al’s aphasia. 

“Even when someone has a stroke, you can do something about it: get up and move,” they said. “Be positive and encouraging.” 

End note: The galleries that Al’s woodworking is featured in include: Oliver Art Center in Frankfort, MI; Synchronicity Gallery in Glen Arbor, MI; and Alma Art Center in Alma, MI.

About the U-M Aphasia Program and UCLL

The University Center for Language and Literacy (UCLL) 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. MARI provides high-quality, individualized mental health, neuropsychological testing, and language and literacy services to the community through its service centers, including UCLL, University Center for the Child and Family (UCCF), and University Psychological Clinic.