Midwestern University Community Event Provides Insights on Aphasia and Stroke

November 16, 2023

The Midwestern University Speech-Language Pathology Program and the University chapter of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association (NSSLHA) hosted an event to provide information and insight into aphasia and stroke. Aphasia is a language disorder that occurs due to damage to parts of the brain that process various aspects of language and communication. Students in several healthcare fields of study from the College of Health Sciences (CHS) and the Chicago College of Optometry (CCO) gave presentations about their expertise, and community members living with aphasia or the aftereffects of a stroke shared their experiences. About 126 faculty, students, and members of the community were in attendance.

Judy Ball, M.S., CCC-SLP, Clinical Associate Professor, Speech-Language Pathology said, “My passion is to have all of these healthcare worker students know how to communicate with all who cannot communicate.”

Ms. Ball made the opening remarks and then opened the floor for student presentations. Physician Assistant student Maria Merchant (CHS PA ’24) spoke about different types of strokes and stroke awareness. The FAST (facial weakness, arm weakness, slurred speech, and timeliness in reacting to the symptoms) approach for identifying strokes was highlighted. Optometry students Emma Gurgel (CCO ’25) and Denisa Suteu (CCO ’25) explained the types of vision issues that occur following a stroke and how these issues impact someone’s performance, such as reading, writing, and language. They had the audience make a triangle with their hands to look through and figure out their dominant eye. Clinical Psychology students Hirangi Patel (CHS ClinPsych ’25) and Valerie Prelee (CHS ClinPsych ’26) encouraged audience members to be cognizant of their mental health and emphasized the importance of self-care and mindfulness. They had audience members participate in a breathing exercise.

Addressing the long-term effects of stroke, physical therapy students Ayat Alomari (CHS PT ’24), Kathy Barnas (CHS PT ’24), Rachel Goecke (CHS PT ’24), and Maria Svidron (CHS PT ’24) offered the clients tips and advice on the current management of living with stroke aftereffects. In addition, as it is fall and the sky is dark earlier, people might be at increased risk for falls. The students discussed fall risks such as area rugs, objects on stairs, and driving concerns. They also had the audience participate in a balance exercise.

Occupational Therapy student Jose Lara (CHS OT ’26) conducted an activity with the audience where they had to open a candy wrapper with their nondominant hand to better understand the experience of someone one-handed or with a flaccid hand. Audience members also used adaptive equipment such as a specialized fork and knife.

Speech-Language Pathology students Brianna Robertson (CHS SLP ’24) and Huda Yasin (CHS SLP ’24) held an activity where the audience turned to an unknown neighbor in the audience and explained to that person what they had for dinner without speaking or using their dominant hand. They highlighted the ways to be an effective communication partner, and that it is okay to feel frustrated sometimes. Brianna and Huda advised extra time for communication, asking the partner to repeat, and to write the communication down. They also spoke about the types of aphasia, and how various methods of communication can assist with aphasia such as writing, drawing, and gesturing.

Students in a variety of healthcare degree programs worked together for this event. “I think it was a great experience for all the students to know what each other does. In order to be successful, they have to work interprofessionally. They will do that for their entire career,” Ms. Ball said. She added that in Speech-Language Pathology, the misconception is that the profession is focused on talking, but the profession has several areas of focus including reading, writing, understanding, and cognitive skills.

The guest speakers included several clients who live with aphasia or the aftermath of a stroke. Ms. Ball mentioned the speakers and their stories impacted the audience the most, especially, “the resonation that this happened to me, but I’m still me.” She also added that these issues are happening to people even younger currently. Patients are increasing in number in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, and when the issues occur, they impact not only the patient, but the entire family, “If a husband or wife was the bill payer and had a stroke, the other partner that previously had a different role has to step in and take that on,” Ms. Ball said, and added that stroke victims know who they were prior to the stroke and the changes and differences, and they work on regaining their skills. She also emphasized the importance of communication with an affected loved one.

“There are very simple things you can do to help someone be successful and communicate. You can help that person to relay their ideas. Their intelligence is there,” Ms. Ball said. “Aphasia does not affect someone’s intelligence. The communication problem impacts speech, understanding, reading, and writing. It is challenging for clients. They wonder how long is this going to take, and am I going to get better?” She added many patients are still able to work and perform the same jobs. “You can’t underestimate somebody. Never say never.” She added she hopes attendees will take away from the experience a “better understanding of what aphasia is. If you don’t know somebody who has had a stroke or if you didn’t experience it, it could be out of sight out of mind. This event helps understand, communicate, and help individuals who have aphasia.”

This annual event began in 2014 through a suggestion of a client of Ms. Ball who has aphasia. The client wanted to create an event to increase awareness and foster communication for people who live with aphasia. The event expanded over the years and also offers students the opportunity for interdepartmental collaboration as a part of the One Health Initiative.

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