As she finds her way back from a stroke, Gail Becker is relearning how to talk.
by Emily Sohn
Gail Becker still has trouble explaining what happened to her in the fall of 2005.
"I was working on the computer and fine, and was walking from another room and stop," she says, smiling and speaking quickly, but clearly frustrated that words aren’t flowing out of her mouth the way she hears them in her head. "Stop talking, you see."
That day, Becker was at home when she suddenly realized she couldn’t speak. Confused, she went to bed. She figured she’d feel better in the morning.
"I didn’t understand why I’m not talking," she says. "I thought, ‘Maybe I’m sick. Maybe another sleep, maybe another day, I should be better.’ But it continue. I can’t talking."
After three days of bewildered silence, Becker, then 59, went to a hospital emergency room. Brain scans showed that a stroke had damaged tissue in her brain.
Every stroke affects its victims differently. In Becker’s case, owing to the location and severity of the clot, the stroke left her with severe aphasia, loss of the ability to speak and to understand speech. Right after the stroke, Becker says, she could say only a few words. Now she wishes she had gone to the hospital more quickly—and she hopes that others will learn from her experience.
Becker immediately began speech therapy at the hospital, slowly regaining her ability to communicate. In the spring of 2007 she transferred to the University’s Davis Center. Since then, her skills have steadily improved.
Becker spends an hour twice a week at the Davis Center, working with supervising speech language pathologist Rebecca Lulai and graduate students who rotate every semester. Becker likes working with the grad students. They work especially hard, she says. And it gives them opportunities to learn. "So it’s both to help each other," she says. “It’s a beautiful thing."
During these sessions, Becker works on the skills that remain most challenging for her, including numbers, verb tenses, sequences, and explanations. Many of the lessons help Becker deal with real-world problems.
Sometimes she is asked to look at a picture in a magazine, then explain what’s going on and answer questions about the scene. Other times given a sentence, such as "I buyed clothes," and she has to substitute the appropriate verb form: "I bought clothes."
All of the exercises aim to help Becker’s brain reform links between what she’s thinking and what she’s saying, Lulai says. "With her type of aphasia she has the thought processes all there. Her stroke did not affect her cognitive skills," Lulai explains. "She has difficulty finding the words, finding the language to express what she’s thinking."
Lulai has seen marked improvement in Becker’s skills since she began coming to the Davis Center. "She can converse a lot better than when I first met her," Lulai says. "I don’t know that she would have been able to do this interview before coming here."
Becker, too, is pleased with her progress. She does her homework with unwavering determination, and she writes down every word that trips her up during the day. Then she brings questions to each therapy session. She is now applying for jobs. And she envisions a future full of flowing conversations.
"Every day," she says, "I find another word."
The Davis Center in the Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences department offers a broad range of clinical services for individuals with speech, language, and hearing difficulties. the services offered in the clinic also provide educational opportunities for graduate students