Brenda Henderson (right) with Speech Pathologist Tiffany McCusker.
Although more than one million Americans have aphasia and more than 100,000 Americans acquire the disorder each year, most people have never heard of it. Aphasia is an acquired communication disorder that impairs a person's ability to process language, but does not affect intelligence. At times it is often confused with Alzheimer’s disease, but people with aphasia have their thoughts and ideas intact. It is the ability to access these thoughts and ideas that is disrupted.
According to the National Aphasia Association, the most common cause of aphasia is stroke (about 25-40 percent of stroke survivors acquire aphasia). Other causes include: head injury, brain tumor, migraines or other neurological causes.
Such is the case for Brenda Henderson, a patient undergoing therapy at WellStar Kennestone Outpatient Rehabilitation. Henderson had a stroke in August, 2013. Her speech was non-existent when she started working with Speech Pathologist Tiffany Woodall McCusker.
Henderson recalls recently being admitted to a different hospital for a condition un-related to stroke. She had a hard time communicating with the nurses and aids. It is because of issues like this that people often mistakenly assume aphasia patients cannot understand or express their own wishes.
“Patients like [Henderson] typically have a card to show strangers that she understands what is being said to her, but is unable to always express herself verbally,” said McCusker.
Sometimes that is not enough. People are not patient enough to give a person with aphasia time to speak or try to finish their sentences.
“When I meet people that are impatient, I just walk away,” said Henderson.
Improvement is a slow process that takes years and even decades. It usually involves helping both the individual and family understand the nature of aphasia and learning strategies for communication.
“Family education is important,” said McCusker. “Families are encouraged to go through support groups to ask questions and speak to other families that have gone through the same thing.”
Henderson has been in therapy for 9 months. She knows this will be a long process.
“I feel like my speech will get better. I think so. I feel I have improved,” said Henderson.
When asked what helps the most on her road to recovery, Henderson credits McCusker and the aphasia support group which meets monthly at the rehabilitation center.
“We work together,” she said.
For more information on therapy options for aphasia, call (770) 793-9876.
Editor’s note: Brenda Henderson’s quotes are her own but have been edited for easier understanding.