Julie Harris

Profiles of Aphasia: Julie Harris

Julie Harris entertained us for decades, whether it was in one of her Tony-award winning stage roles, movies, or on television shows such as Knots Landing. She received the National Medal of Arts, and entry into the American Theatre Hall of Fame. She also experienced aphasia.

We’ve been profiling well-known people with aphasia, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Gabby Giffords. Aphasia can affect anyone; even actresses.

A Stroke Before a Performance

Perusing the 101 acting credits on Julie Harris’s Internet Movie Database page only gives you a taste of a career that also included numerous stage performances. But being in the acting world almost came to an end after a stroke in 2001. When she didn’t show up for a performance, the theater sent someone to her apartment who found her on the floor. She explains, “I knew something was wrong but I couldn’t get help.”

Recovery

The stroke left her with aphasia, which she treated with speech therapy for two years. She recounted her experience in an interview with The American Stroke Association:

This therapy helped her improve her vocabulary but not her fluency. Like many survivors with aphasia she had difficulty finding the right word; she sometimes said words that rhymed with the word she was trying to say, e.g., “wife” instead of “life.” She avoided starting conversations, and when she spoke, there were lots of hesitations.

To keep acting, she played a role where the character was also recovering from a stroke, but aphasia was bringing her long-running career to an end.

A New Beginning

Five years after her stroke, University of Michigan Aphasia Program contacted her to see if she wanted to try a different therapy. She started a very intense therapy plan, completing 23 hours of speech therapy per week for six weeks. The therapy changed her life, giving her ways to circumvent her aphasia and return to conversations with people. Even though she didn’t return to acting full time, she did return to connecting with people.

Rather than being on the stage, she switched to a life of theatergoing, attending performances in New York and Boston and tracking those performances in a personal scrapbook.

When Julie Harris died in 2013, Broadway theaters dimmed their lights for a full minute in her honour. A fitting tribute to a woman who lit up the stage and screen.

Image: Julie Harris via WikiCommons

Comments

8 Comments

  • Anonymous
    January 20, 2018 at 10:42 am

    MY WIFE OF 66 YEARS PASSED 9/23/17 FROM PPA AT AGE 85. WE HAD LOTS OF HEALTH CARE HELP. DEPRESSING WAS, SPEACH THERAPIST ENFORMED ME SHE WOULD NOT RETURN BECAUSE THERE WAS NO HOPE OF IMPROVEMENT. NOW I READ J. HARRIS DID IMPROVE. I AM READING PPA INFORMATION BECAUSE OF WHAT I NOTICE OF MY CONDITION. AT 88, FORGETTING NAMES AND PLACES ARE COMMON BUT WHEN I THINK A WORD AND SAY ANOTHER THAT IS CONCERNING. HAPPENING WITH MORE FREQUENCY. THANK YOU FOR YOUR COMMENTS DAVID C. WAY
    [email protected]

  • Miley Young
    January 29, 2018 at 5:12 am

    My son got a stroke at age 52 and learn to walk physically and use his limbs, but doesn’t communicate much. Is been a year and his brain has improved but not quite. Do you think my son will return to his normal self mentally?

  • Kathie Frailey
    January 30, 2018 at 11:38 am

    I wish the University of Michigan would contact us–I feel my husband could be so close to speaking again, he actually said a complete sentence last week which even surprised him–so far we go to speech once a week and do the same exercises we did 2 months ago he needs to be challenged. We don’t have a lot of money so the chances of getting help is very slim.

  • Anonymous
    January 30, 2018 at 1:48 pm

    Megan was the perfect child. And I know every mother thinks their child is the best, but I’m not exaggerating when I say this. She gave me absolutely no trouble as a baby, toddler, and even teenager. She was popular and beautiful, worked extremely hard in school to get good grades, got accepted into nursing school after high school and was in her third year of her degree. Between the ages of 15 – 21 she had traveled to Guatemala, El Salvador, Dominican Republic and Vietnam with Habitat for Humanity building homes for the poor. She volunteered for four years with our local Hospice Society mainly running a program for children who had lost a significant person in their lives. And she was the first recipient of the Community Youth Leadership award presented by our Rotary Club. She had her life planned out – she had one year of school left and then she wanted to work with Doctors Without Borders to nurse in parts of the world that really needed her. She wasn’t afraid of danger or loneliness, she just wanted to help people – and travel.
    Megan went to Cuba in January of 2016 to be the maid of honor in her best friend’s wedding. They had a wonderful time but two days before they were scheduled to come home, Megan had a seizure in the middle of the night. The resort doctor tended to her but didn’t send her to the hospital. He advised her to see her regular doctor once she returned home. The next morning she felt a little fuzzy, but later that day she was feeling back to her normal self and enjoyed the rest of her trip. A couple of days after she came home she called me into her bedroom to tell me what had happened in Cuba. I was very concerned of course, but she had never had any medical issues her whole life so I thought perhaps it was an allergy or something she drank – she was in a foreign country after all. She didn’t want to go to the doctor because she knew, with her nursing background training, that they would take her driver’s license away – that was her biggest concern. But I insisted she get checked out. As it turned out, her doctor did take her license away for six months and sent her for a CT Scan and and MRI to see what the cause of the seizure was. He didn’t tell us at the time, but we found out later that he was very concerned. A seizure in an adult is never a good sign and almost always indicates a serious problem.
    Two days later, Megan went for her CT Scan. Because she couldn’t drive, I dropped her off at the hospital, and went to work just a few blocks away. She was going to walk over to my work when she was finished. As she was walking over, she got a call from her doctor asking her to come to his office right away. She told them she had a class that she couldn’t miss. They said it was very important and she had to come. She told them she would come in as soon as her class was over in a few hours. She called me to tell me about this conversation. I completely panicked as I knew the CT Scan must have shown something serious. She went to class and it was the longest few hours of my life. When we went to the doctor, our biggest fears were confirmed. They had found a golf-ball sized mass on Megan’s brain. The “good” news was that it was not cancerous, invasive or aggressive. She had probably had it for most of her life but it had just now gotten to a point where in triggered something to cause a seizure. Although this news was devastating, we felt OK about it. We were told it could be removed quite easily and everything should be OK. He booked us an appointment with a Neuro-Surgeon a few days later who confirmed the same thing. The tumor was located on the left side of her head just above the ear. But it was located very close to the fine-motor and speech parts of her brain so he wasn’t going to do anything too risky. If he had to leave a bit of the tumor in place in order to avoid any risk, he would as it wasn’t hurting her. The surgery should take about an hour, she’d be in the hospital for a couple of days, then home to rest for a couple of weeks, and then be as good a new. It wasn’t an emergency situation so the doctor told Megan she could finish her semester at school and book the surgery for a couple of months down the road.
    The day of the surgery came and although we were nervous, we felt pretty good about everything. In a few hours this would all be behind us. They prepped Megan and away she went. But when the doctor came out of surgery a couple of hours later, we were not prepared for the news he had for us.
    The tumor was much more complicated than they had thought. The channels that they thought were liquid, were actually hard, fibrous tentacles that had spread quite deeply. In the moment, the surgeon felt that his only choice was to remove the complete tumor because if it grew much more, surgery wouldn’t have been possible at all. He tried to do the surgery with Megan awake, but every time he would touch a certain part of her brain, she would get extremely agitated and panic. So they finished the job after putting her back under anesthetic. The surgery was now over. He felt that he had removed the whole tumor, but he was concerned because she was taking a very long time to come out of the anesthetic and respond. He said we’d just have to wait to see. She remained in recovery for several hours and then was moved to critical care for the night. She wasn’t speaking or moving yet. Before we left for the night to let her sleep, she whispered “I love you mom”. It was excruciating leaving her and the hardest night of my life.
    The next day we got to the hospital bright and early. We wanted to be there before she woke up. She still couldn’t speak much but was slowly improving. But she was so scared. She couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong. This was supposed to be a pretty simple procedure and now her whole life was turned upside down. She couldn’t speak, and she had no movement on her right side. They sent her downstairs for another MRI. We wanted to talk to the doctor, but he didn’t come in that day. Meg spend another few nights in critical care and finally on Sunday, four days after her surgery, her surgeon came to check on her. He felt OK with her progress, which surprised me because to us it seemed like she hadn’t improved much at all. He felt that the brain just had a lot of swelling that needed to go down before she could really start to improve. He took me and my husband, Don, out of Megan’s room to talk.
    He told us that during the surgery Megan had a stroke. He felt that it had occurred in an area that didn’t concern him too much and he was quite sure that she would regain most, if not all, of her mobility to the right side. Megan’s sight had also been affected so she had no vision in the right side of both of her eyes. He was hopeful that it would improve as well. He showed us her MRI from the day after the surgery and it looked good to him. So, he was relieved and considered the surgery a success, but we were still devastated and knew that our lives would never be the same again. My heart was broke knowing the struggles Megan was going to have to go through for the rest of her life. I tried my hardest to stay positive, but it was so hard. I was grieving for my daughter who hadn’t died – but who’s whole life’s plan was crushed!
    So much has happened, and I have a million details and stories that will have to go in my book, but too many to write about here. Basically, Megan spent 2 weeks in the neuro-unit of Royal Columbian Hospital. The nurses were wonderful there. Then she was taken to GF Strong, a live-in rehabilitation facility, where she stayed for 8 weeks. The first night she arrived, she broke down in my arms and cried, “Mom, I can’t talk!” and the terrified look in her eyes scared me to death. She was just now realizing that her life was never going to be the same.
    She had intense therapy every day at GF Strong including speech and language, Occupational and Physical. She had to learn to walk, talk, dress, and feed herself again (all one-handed, and left at that). GF Strong is located 2 hours from our home and her dad and I took turns driving in every day to be with her. I would leave early from work and go home very late, after I had her settled in bed for the night. It was a brutal two months, but we didn’t want her to be alone for even a minute. We found a rental in the city near the hospital, but it was only available for two-weeks. Don moved into by himself so that he could be close to Megan and stay with her until late at night as he didn’t have to commute two hours home. I stayed home to be with our younger son, who had basically been ignored for months!
    Megan came home in July and has continued to work hard on her recovery. It’s been 11 months and she has come a long way, but she will never be the same as she was. Aside from the physical disabilities, she struggles with some cognitive issues as well. We’ve discovered that in order for the surgeon to completely remove the tumor, some brain tissue was taken as well. We will never know how much damage that caused. Megan still attends out-patient rehab therapy three times per week and works hard at home every day. Reading and writing are very hard for her, but she is slowly improving. And to make things even more difficult, she’s had to learn to write with her left hand because of the right sided weakness.
    Megan is a fighter, but of course she has had some down times during her recovery. This winter has been hard because the weather has been so brutal. She hasn’t had a chance to get outside as much as she’d like. Her dad and I are at work all day and her friends have jobs, school and other commitments. Her brother Jake, who she adores, is away in the U.S. at university so hasn’t been around much this year at all. She has her youngest brother, Sam, at home, and as much as he tries to help her and keep her company, a 13-year old boy isn’t exactly her first choice for a constant companion. But most of the time she is positive and continues to believe that with hard work and time, she will be able to make much more progress. Megan has worked at Sandpiper Golf and Country Club for 7 years and she is really hoping she’ll be able to get back there this spring, even if only for a couple of days a week. I feel this will make a huge difference in her progress. She’ll be surrounded by people that love her and want to support her any way they can. I know it will be hard for her socially, but it will build up her confidence which is very important for her. And it is so peaceful and beautiful at the golf course too.
    I remember her asking me one day as I was pushing her in her wheelchair outside in the sunshine about 4 weeks after her surgery, “Mom, why did this happen to me?” What could I say? She was in a facility full of people with similar stories, granted most of them were much older than her, but some were young with broken necks or traumatic brain injuries as well. I told her that I didn’t know. I told her “Why not you? Why someone else?” Sometimes people never know why things happen to them but I told her that I was positive that someday we would know why it happened to her. There had to be a reason. She was meant to do something with this tragedy. And I really believe that. She most likely will not be able to return to school to finish her nursing degree so she will need to find her new path and strive for that happy, fulfilled life that she so deserves.

  • T.J.R.
    January 30, 2018 at 3:57 pm

    I had a series of strokes at age 50 which caused aphasia — short-term memory issues, made it hard to read, hard to think of the words I wanted to say, forget what I was talking about mid-sentence, and other speech and thinking issues. Instead of saying rhyming words like Ms. Harris, I would say a similar word — maybe it would start with the same letter or sound similar to the word I meant to say. I had the same problem when i would read — I would read a word wrong, but If I re-read the sentence, I would then see the correct word and the sentence will make sense. I would end up reading a paragraph over and over sometimes. I could never remember what I had previously read, and would have to re-read previous chapters. I went from being a lover of books, to dreading even reading the paper anymore, which I had always done daily. One of the worst parts was that when I would say a wrong word, people would laugh, and I would fee so embarrassed. These symptoms were how I discovered that I had the strokes in the first place. They were small, apparently, and I didn’t realize I was having them until I was making so many mistakes at my job as a legal secretary that I finally went to the doctor. I thought I was getting early onset dementia or Alzheimer’s. The good news is that they found what was causing the strokes, and fixed it with a small heart surgery. I can’t work anymore, but I do have a decent quality of life. Thank goodness for books on tape and tv news. I spend my days with my 5-year old grandson, gardening, crafting — and things I can still do, even with my limitations Thank you, NAA, for your stories. I read them all – even if it takes me awhile. 😉

  • Kathy
    January 30, 2018 at 4:53 pm

    My husband has PPA. Most Aphasias are caused by stroke or brain injury. His neurologist says we may never know what caused his PPA…no stroke findings on the MRI, but possible brain injury some 25 years ago in a bicycle accident. I would like to see more articles on PPA and the informing of readers that there are many types of Aphasia as this article gives the impression that all Aphasia patients may possibly be helped by intense speech therapy. Speech therapy will delay the progression of PPA for only so long. PPA is an Aphasia that cannot be reversed as is the case with stroke. PPA also has three sub-sets of the disease. There is much to do about informing people about Aphasia in general. There is promising research with all brain conditions. I’d like to see more explanation in the articles or links embedded in the articles on the particular Aphasia being discussed. Thank you for this website. Aside from Mesalum’s work at Northwestern University, it was the first lifeline I found on the disease.

  • Patricia
    January 30, 2018 at 8:15 pm

    I would love to know if singing has helped any people with Aphasia. Can anyone tell me? It’s been very helpful with so many other conditions.

  • Goron Krainen
    January 31, 2018 at 11:48 am

    It was a true pleasure to have known and worked with Julie Harris. She was such a warm and down to earth person. She had more energy than anyone, and she was over 80 at the time. She called her fellow persons with aphasia that she was with her “angels.” Such a wonderful, caring, giving and talented person. I will cherish the memories made with her.

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