When he was 87 years old, my father had a stroke. He woke up to a strange and frustrating world, a talkative man without his usual language. He talked and talked to us in streams of gibberish. When he realized we didn’t understand, he slung his stroke-weakened arm down on the bed and muttered “oh shit,” a phase not uttered by this Southern Baptist gentleman, I imagine, since his young seagoing days spent aboard Merchant ships during World War II.
I was 54 years old and I could empathize with Dad. I knew what it was like to have thinking problems, because I had been injured in a car crash in 1977, back before anyone used the term brain injury. Somehow I had managed to stumble through three decades with undiagnosed cognitive deficits before having an emotional breakdown over the residual effects of it all. Just a few years before my father’s stroke in 2009, I had been told that my frustrations were due to that long ago brain injury.
At last I knew that my thinking problems had a name, but I didn’t know much else about the brain or what to do about my dysfunctions. So I was thrilled to go with my father to his sessions with a speech-language pathologist where I learned that a half dozen or so unique parts of the brain handled the different aspects of speech. One area looks up the words in our mental dictionary, another helps us decipher the words that are said to us, and yet another tells our lips and tongue how to shape sounds into meaningful words. Since I had spent most of my adult life in marketing communications, marketing-speak flowed freely from my mouth and across my computer screen. But I had never once thought about the awesome science behind communication. Words came from my brain and its billions of neurons!
From the SLP, I learned that speech and communication were possible because of acts of cognition, made possible by chemical and electrical activity in our brain connecting areas with the ability to understand, remember, choose and use information. Cognition is the ability to pay attention, concentrate, orient, remember, organize, solve problems, initiate thought, set goals, make decisions, monitor ourselves and manage time. Like the heart pumps blood and the stomach digests food, another organ, our brain, pumps thought energy from place to place in order to make sense and respond to the world around us. It allows us to communication: to listen, think, speak, read and write. The brain is amazing.
Speech-language pathologists assess thinking problems, decide what areas are impaired and works with people like my father and me, who have damage their neurons, to come up with strategies to encourage neurons to recover or to compensate for thinking deficits that may never improve completely.
The speech-language pathologist helped my father and me see that we would have to pay closer attention to listening, thinking and speaking than we ever had before. Because our brains were slower, because brain injury interrupted old thinking processes, we would have to learn to use memory aids, like writing things down and using a calendar, more diligently. We had to remind ourselves to repeat, visualize and use associations in order to remember. Because old neuronal connections were broken, we had to remember to take it slow and not jump to impulsive decisions.
This all sounds simple, but it hadn’t been for me. After my brain injury, I became very frustrated when I couldn’t put together thoughts as easily as I thought I should. I got frustrated with my thinking skills over and over, until my frustration boiled over and I got mad, emotional and worse.
When I found out that there was a professional who could help people with brain injury, I got so excited that I went home and told my husband that I was going to be an SLP. I wanted to do what SLPs do to rehabilitate cognitive communication skills. I wanted to help others avoid the potholes that had made my drive through life so bumpy. Hooray for speech-language pathologists!