GAIL MARTIN, Independent Editor
When Frank Austin suffered a stroke, he was only 40 years old.
The stroke initially left him paralyzed, with limited mobility in one hand. Within in a few days, however, Austin was able to physically recover about 80 per cent of his former ability. What he had lost, however, was something that is very difficult to recover – his ability to communicate.
Austin suffers from aphasia, a symptom of stroke that makes it difficult for the sufferer to find the right word. When he was still in hospital, Austin said he would continually ask the nurses one question: “what is my son’s name?” Then, when he had a handle on that, he needed help in spelling Kyle’s name. Austin uses a sentence to give a sense of what aphasia can be like: “My favourite number in the alphabet is purple.” That’s how confusing it can be for someone suffering from aphasia, as well as for their caregivers.
Since Austin’s stroke in 2007, he has pursued numerous means of getting better. His initial in-hospital therapy lasted five months, and then he endured a four-month wait for speech therapy.
Through support groups, Austin has found the extra help he needs, but the groups were always far away, making it difficult for Austin to find the energy and time.
Last week, however, Austin was able to meet with aphasia sufferers in his hometown of Elmira, with the first ever meeting of The Expressive Café, in the Woolwich Memorial Centre.
Austin said he started the aphasia support group when it became clear that it wouldn’t happen in any other way.
Support from Mary Jordan, coordinator of the Woolwich Seniors Centre, where the group meets, as well as Michele Anderson of Clarity Communication Therapy, made it possible for Austin’s dream to come to fruition.
On Sept. 20, 16 area residents came out to join the inaugural meeting of The Expressive Café, coming up with a variety of ideas for future meetings, including brain games, support to improve conversation and public speaking, as well as how to complete simple tasks such as writing out a grocery list.
For Judie Whitney, a stroke survivor, the group is just what she needs.
“It’s so nice to know other people in the world, living in my town, seeing them in my grocery store, in my church, and knowing they are like me,” said Whitney.
Her stroke, which took place a year ago in June, was so severe that no one expected her to live. But when the clot-busting agents took hold, Whitney was able to come back, which is “both a blessing and a curse,” according to her husband Bob.
A blessing, because Judie is able to continue to have a fulfilling life. A curse, because she is doing so well that it is hard to access the support she still needs.
Whitney, a former chiropodist at Woolwich Community Health Centre in St. Jacobs, said that she struggles with being able to write — “I used to have such neat writing,” and with a daily battle against fatigue.
Barb VanGiessen, from Waterloo, came out to the meeting last Thursday to check out the group.
VanGiessen suffered a stroke this August, and is currently on a two-month waiting list for therapy. She struggles with being able to speak fluidly, a problem given her career teaching and mentoring in adult education classes.
She’s still determining whether the aphasia group is right for her, but said that any opportunity to connect is a good one.
“Anytime you have to talk to a new person, is another way to help,” said VanGiessen.
For Austin, his hope is simple. He wants The Expressive Café to provide the support and encouragement aphasia sufferers need.
“I hope to be a bridge for people after their stroke and before therapy,” said Austin. “Some wait times (for speech therapy) can be weeks, even months. When someone has aphasia, the best practices say you should be working right away.”
The Expressive Café meets every Thursday, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the Woolwich Seniors Centre, in the Woolwich Memorial Centre. For more information, contact Austin at 519-669-0568, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.