Tuesday, August 21, 2007

In a foreign land - life with aphasia

If you meet Christy Campbell when she's well-rested, it's not apparent that there's anything wrong with her. But if she's tired - and she tires easily - her speech starts to fall apart.

Two years ago, when she was only 31, Christy had a stroke that affected the left side of her brain. Initially, she was completely paralysed on her right side and couldn't speak or swallow.

"The doctors showed her parents and me her CT scan," says Christy's partner, Sean Standing. "There is this big, black hole in her brain."

Up until then, Christy had been vibrant, healthy and physically active. There was no family history of strokes or high blood pressure. The day before the stroke, Christy was at a conference in downtown Vancouver related to her job in Environment Canada's environmental assessment program. There she suffered a trans-ischemic attack, or TIA, a mini-stroke. For about 30 minutes, her right side was paralysed and she was unable to speak. But both functions came back and Christy took a taxi to her doctor's office and later went to Lions Gate Hospital for a CT scan that was normal.

The next morning, when Sean tried to wake her up, Christy's mouth was drooping. She couldn't sit up or talk. Christy ended up at Vancouver General Hospital and began to regain the use of her right side. But her speech was slow to return. A few weeks later, when she was transferred to G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre for six weeks of intensive physical and speech therapy, Christy could say only one word - Yes.

By the time Christy moved back to their North Vancouver condo, she could walk short distances. But she could only say about 10 words. She still couldn't say No. She couldn't say her name. She couldn't say 'help.'

She had to wait a few weeks before there was a space in the outpatient, speech-therapy program at Lions Gate Hospital. All the time, an invisible clock was ticking. Traditional wisdom is that stroke victims only improve for the first six months; whatever functions they regain within that period is all they're ever going to get. Christy and many others have proven it wrong. But that's what medical professionals tell people after strokes.

"You're left with this tick, tick, tick, tick for six months," says Sean. "You think every day, 'If I'm not helping her get better, I'm wasting seconds and it's taking away from her future.'"

Says Christy, "I kept saying to Sean, stop pushing me!"

At the hospital and at G.F. Strong, there was a seemingly daily dose of 'You should also be doing this . . . .' In the outpatient program, where she got a half-hour of speech therapy three times a week, Christy's speech continued to improve.