By: Melba Ashburn
My life changed forever on January 29, 2005. Now it’s two and one-half years since I suffered a severe stroke. My family and friends say I look fine, but I don’t feel fine. I want to share with you some of my feelings.
I was seventy-nine-years old and I was healthy and active. I had been a teacher with a master’s degree and an author. I entertained with my keyboard many times each month and in addition I read poetry, which was a hobby. I was called the “train lady” and wrote and did programs about the Camas Prairie Railroad. I was president of the Alpha Delta Kappa, (Women Educators Honorary Sorority) and was involved in the Congregational Presbyterian Church, Retired Educators, Retired Railroaders, line dancing, and much more. In a matter of minutes I had gone from being able to communicate normally to one who was unable to convey even the most basic words. It was a blood clot.
Since the brain damage is in the left cerebral hemisphere that controls speech I have aphasia and also my right side is weak and numb. I have no feeling for hot or cold in my right side. If my shoe falls off my right foot I don’t feel it. When I am sewing I can’t feel the needle. When I am typing on the computer I constantly must look at the right hand keys. I have read a lot about strokes. I read if my back hurts it may be because of the gait when I walk. My back always hurts. X-rays were taken and I go to a therapist and I have exercises that I do daily.
I am a stroke survivor as I fight for recovery. I pray because I’m not in this alone. Remember the hymn, “Be still, my soul; for God will undertake to guide in future days as in the past. Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake; … Be still, my soul; for God is on your side.” I am very thankful that I have many people who pray with me and for me. At first, I was angry with God. But I finally came to a point that God allowed the stroke to happen for a reason. Maybe I had the stroke because I needed to slow down.
While I was in the hospital I realized I had difficulty with my vocabulary. I felt my life was over. The doctors said there was so much damage in my brain that I should go to a nursing home. One day the doctor came in and I had written a note to him (because I couldn’t say it) “I want to die.” He didn’t react. Maybe he couldn’t read my writing. I felt my life was over and I was devastated and horrified.
Aphasia is a speech-language disorder. I like it when I read, “It must be made clear that the breakdown is in language not intelligence.” I had six months of speech therapy from Brandy Sullivan and I made great gains, but I needed more. At that point, however, my daughter, Julie, went with me to the doctor. The doctor told us that I would not get any better. But I needed hope. I believe with determination and practice I am getting better. I remember when I could barely talk, read, or write. I not only had speech therapy, but also physical and occupation therapy.
I am still insecure about my speech and fluency. I avoid starting conversations and when I speak there are lots of hesitations. Family and friends need to be patient, because I am trying to find the right words to say. Sometimes I am ignored when I try to talk because I am so slow. During my exercise class I had everyone’s attention and I wanted to say “I will demonstrate.” They waited, but I couldn’t say ‘demonstrate.’ There are so many words that I can’t say, but I can say ‘Tsceminicum.’ I belong to the Tsceminicum Club and tsceminicum is an Indian word that means ‘where two rivers meet.’
I lost numbers. I couldn’t count and still have trouble with it. Daily I practiced writing my zip code, address and phone number. The therapist spent much time in teaching me to write checks and to put the clock hands in the correct position. I had to learn ‘five after three” is written ‘3:05’ and ‘twenty-five after midnight’ is written ‘12:25.’ I learned the difference between the numbers – six, sixteen, sixty, and sixhundred.
At first Brandy taught like I was a first grader when the words were one syllable, like comb, fan, rose, and map. Every day she showed pictures and I was graded on how many I could say. I tried to sing the “ABC Song.” I still don’t know the whole alphabet. My therapist started with simple sentences – ‘How are you?’ and later ‘The store had a sale’ and then advanced to ‘The family had their pictures taken.’ My therapist wrote every name of my family and I worked on that for months.
I go to church every week, but I still can’t say “The Lord’s Prayer.” We sing but I can’t keep up and we have the Prayer of Confession but I’m too slow. The Wall Street Journal published an article “Restoring Lost Speech after a Stroke.” The article focused on how people continue to make progress with aphasia for years. That is good news. I believe a group approach in providing speech therapy to stroke survivors would be meaningful. I belong to “Life after Stroke” which is a stroke education group and is sponsored by St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in cooperation with the American Stroke Association. We support and encourage one another but many stroke survivors don’t have aphasia.
I am thankful to my God. I live in my home, drive my car (only in town and during daylight), and I love my friends and family. I organized the Scholarship in memory of my daughter, Diane Wilmonen, and it pays $500.00 annually to a deserving college student from the Congregational Presbyterian Church. Fatigue is with me always. But I play the piano for groups a few times every month, (my keyboard is too heavy to carry). I am trying to learn to read poetry again.
Aphasia is an impairment and I need time to communicate. Speaking takes more time and sometimes is extremely difficult. I have problems with my right side, and to improve my speech, I practice reading aloud. Some people think that I am a miracle, but the most important thing is THERE IS LIFE AFTER A STROKE!