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Aphasia: Finding the right words after stroke

Standing by SIUH's Edgewater Plaza, Simon Burke discusses his experience overcoming aphasia.

A stroke altered Simon Burke's life. Now the SIUH employee is picking it back up with the hospital's help

It was the end of a normally hectic day for Simon Burke. The 59-year-old information technologies manager was juggling a full-time job and pursuing his MBA.

Mr. Burke remembers coming out of a meeting and returning to his office at Staten Island University Hospital’s Edgewater Plaza location.

“I was sitting in my chair,” he recalls. “I was looking around and I noticed that I couldn’t move my right arm.”

At some point soon after, his wife called. But the phone conversation was one-sided, and she knew something was wrong. Alarmed, she called 9-1-1.

Mr. Burke was brought by ambulance to the emergency department of Staten Island University Hospital (SIUH) North.

He has vague recollections of going to radiology and being examined by doctors. It was determined that he had suffered a stroke and was given the clot-busting drug tPA (tissue plasminogen activator).

When he was fully conscious, the medical staff began to ask him routine questions.

“They were asking me, ‘What’s your name? What’s your date of birth?’” he recalled. “I knew the answers, but I couldn’t get the words out.”

Mr. Burke is one of two million Americans who have aphasia, a disorder that affects the ability to understand words and speak with others.

Aphasia can affect people who have had strokes, traumatic brain injuries or other brain damage. The disorder doesn’t diminish a person’s intelligence, only their ability to communicate. While there is no definitive cure, it can be treated. 

After an extensive medical workup, the cause of Mr. Burke’s stroke was determined to be of unknown origin (cryptogenic).

Because he had no other residual effects from the stroke, Mr. Burke was released from the hospital after six days. He attended weekly speech therapy sessions near his home in New Jersey to address his aphasia.

Mr. Burke returned to work six months later, and continued with speech therapy through SIUH’s outpatient rehabilitation program.

“Speech therapists help patients recover from aphasia by giving them strategies to help compensate for what they have lost,” said Maria Lassen, a speech-language pathologist who worked with Burke at SIUH’s outpatient rehab.

“Often in aphasia one of the most common symptoms is that a patient can’t grasp that one word or term that they’re trying to convey to you. For example, if it’s the TV remote, we’ll encourage them to talk around that term to be able to describe the concept to someone without worrying about needing to say those exact words. So they would say, ‘Can you pass the item to change the channel?’ It’s another way of being able to convey the same message.”

Mr. Burke has ample opportunity to practice such strategies as a stroke peer mentor at the hospital. He became involved with the peer mentor program at the suggestion of Ms. Lassen.

quotation mark I was told that after you get to about a year, your improvements start to plateau. I know that for myself, I’m still seeing that there’s ongoing progress.
Simon Burke

Peer mentors such as Mr. Burke provide a glimpse of what is possible, and share tips and resources that have helped them along the way.

“I try to visit the stroke unit on a weekly basis. I get introduced to stroke patients who’ve just been admitted to the unit,” explained Mr. Burke. “I say, ‘Hey I’m Simon, I’m a peer mentor and I’ve had a stroke,’ and their eyes open up. A lot of the fears, questions and frustrations they have, I also had.”

It has been three years since his stroke, and while Mr. Burke says he’s not yet running at 100 percent, he’s pretty close to it.

In addition to working and being a peer mentor, Mr. Burke attends a monthly aphasia support group that meets at SIUH’s south campus. He also plays a mean bass in The Anderson Council, a 1960s-infused, psychedelic power/pop/garage rock band that performs gigs throughout the tri-state area.

“I was told that after you get to about a year, your improvements start to plateau,” said Mr. Burke. “I know that for myself, I’m still seeing that there’s ongoing progress.”

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