What is aphasia? It was something I'd never found out the true meaning of until recently.  Aphasia is a communication disorder that results from damage to the parts of the brain that contain language (typically in the left half of the brain), affecting the production or comprehension of speech and the ability to read or write.

Not so long ago, I'd met a Speech-language therapist who is the Senior Lecturer at the School of Psychology (Speech Science) when I visited to the Brain Recovery Clinic, Centre for Brain Research at the University of Auckland.

I had subsequently volunteered as a test subject, should they require it, at the University. In early 2016, I was asked to be involved in a research project's post-graduate study. A School of Psychology masters student was studying the differences between auditory processing (difficulty with hearing and understanding) and language processing (aphasia).


That brought back memories of when I had my massive brain-bleed, the congenital AVM haemorrhage leading on to the stroke more than twenty years ago (1995). Cerebral AVMs are rare. 1 in 10 people whose first symptom is excessive brain bleeding will die. The prognosis wasn't hopeful.

At the height of my severe aphasia I couldn't remember anything. Short term memory was obliterated in the AVM haemorrhagic stroke, which needed a nine hour open brain operation to stop the bleeding and to save my life. I barely survived and from then on, my mind was like a sieve; thoughts were brief, fleeting, almost instantly dissipating before I could pin them down. Clinical pshycologists came to assess my speech and reading skills, I found it difficult to read aloud, slurred everything as I tried to get sounds out, had a very short attention span, and I skipped lines and paragraphs. I had to repeat, over and over again a passage of text I had read a moment ago, as I couldn't remember having read it.

University of auckland, tamaki campus
University of auckland, tamaki campus, medical clinics, research laboratories

People have said not so long ago... but, you could have written things down, as to what you required?

I couldn't readily write in words that made sense; I was a right-hander, so everything had to be learnt again using my left hand. Writing with my (non-dominant) hand meant the position of how I held myself, and slant of my hand was quite different. To be able to write anything, I first had to think of a word and spell it out, in my mind. And I had to re-learn English. With my memory severely challenged: how do the alphabets go again (had to re-learn alphabets and numbers) to spell...?

Speech was quite incoherent and very stressful... for the listener, as well as for me. I couldn't pronounce even a 1- or 2-syllable word and I slurred everything I tried to say - I would try, try... and re-try to say something. It was such a simple word, but to get it out in the open was a challenge. Remembering the word, practising in my mind how to say it and then to say clearly it without mumbling or slurring. Yes, speech was something wonderful to be marvelled at.

Aphasia: it brought to mind an older lady whom I met when I was out shopping one day. She stopped me when she saw my legbrace. She'd had a stroke some 8 to 10 years ago and she was trying to speak with real difficulty, stuttering and slurring her words, she repeatedly tried to get herself understood. Finally she produced a card which said she had aphasia.

Looking it up on Google: aphasia - to my surprise that described pretty much exactly what I had so many years ago, and still have to varying degrees. Probably I'd heard it mentioned a long time ago describing my condition by doctors, but since I didn't know what it meant it had no effect on me. I had only just discovered the name by which it was called, by chance. There was no pre-judgement when you were not aware of names and stigmas. The belief that you could do it after all was the end-game, however long it took, and perhaps, all you needed was encouragement in a big way. At times, letting the calamitous situation swallow you - giving up before even trying is a real challenge.

The day of the testing dawned bright, but cloudy; there was a hint of rain in the air. The masters student,  was there to greet us at the Tamaki Campus of the University of Auckland. We adjourned to a sound-proofed room set aside for our use. She had the otoscope ready, an instrument used to look into the ears. An otoscope potentially gives a view of the ear canal and tympanic membrane or eardrum. Satisfied with the findings, she was ready to begin testing.

She explained the procedure at length and oversaw everything to do with the examination. I was the last person on the trial that she would run, before writing up the results, which were to be formalised at a later date. There were flip-cards, word recognition association, production of lists when given a general word, tones and more tones, wearing headphones for auditory trials, and more. I had to return for another session with her, the next week.

University of auckland, tamaki campus, audio research laboratory, aphasia testing

A selfie no less...

University of auckland, tamaki campus, audio research laboratory, aphasia testing

I had severe aphasia courtesy of the stroke in 1995, but, I hadn't had any testing with aphasia since last century(!) in London. I had vague recollections that the tasks were similar to what I was put through in London - one stood out. In the London hospital with clinical psychologists, I had to produce a list of animals... Back then my mind was a complete blank. Nothing...

Thanks to Iruni for including me in participating in her research about auditory processing and language skills after stroke. And to Clare McCann (PhD), Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology (Speech Science) for organising my involvement in the program.

Here at the Tamaki campus in Auckland, I did relatively well, not quite 100% but that gives me opportunity for improvement. From not being able to keep a thought in my head, slurring and mumbling when I tried to say the first few words to now, where there is a marked improvement. Twenty-one years since that first test, I'm still improving year upon year.

My mantra: "One day at a time. Believe that you can, and you're already half way there" - courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt.