I learned how to talk again. It’s been 17 months since a life-changing event left me without words. I want you to know, from a patient’s perspective, how speech-language pathologists affected my life.
I don’t know if I will ever truly be able to explain what it feels like to find yourself without the power to speak. My rehabilitation team helped me conquer my world once again.
To understand where I am now, you must know who I was. I graduated with honors from The Citadel and The Military College of South Carolina, and worked for the Naval Services, Department of Defense, then the U.S. Air Force and, eventually the private sector.
For 20 years, I dedicated my life to making changes in health care and higher education. In October 2015, I assisted with the delivery of a major project for an Ivy League university and was promoted to vice president at my consulting firm. At age 41, my social life was active as I enjoyed Philadelphia city life.
Around this time, I began experiencing bad headaches and couldn’t really figure out why. I shrugged it off as part of life and attempted to work through the pain.
On the morning of Nov. 13, 2015, my life changed. I was reviewing notes for a company meeting where I would assume a new leadership role. I headed to the shower. The headache I’d nursed since 3 a.m. got steadily worse. I wanted to lie down, but the excitement of my first executive meeting was overpowering. A few minutes into the shower, I heard and felt the equivalent of a gunshot to the head. Excruciating pain led to a complete black out. I fell out of the shower and hit the bathroom floor.
A short while later, I woke up. Unbearable pain consumed me while sensation and movement melted away. I could no longer feel anything on my right side, head to foot.
Putting on a pair of pants became my first priority. I knew I had to call 911. But, despite my pain, I could not allow a crowd of paramedics to find me stark-naked on the floor. I struggled to find and operate my cell phone. After multiple faulty attempts to hit 9-1-1, the operator picked up. In a calm voice I said, “Hello, yes, I may require some assistance.”
When the words left my mouth , they sounded a lot more like “aarrghhhh….. zzzzphhhhhhh….. gugle.” As sensation left half my body, I also found I could no longer speak.
Within 10 minutes, I was in the hospital. At the 20-minute mark, I was told I was having a massive aneurysm. I was later diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation (AVM). I lost consciousness shortly after and remained in a coma for 45 days. Doctors encouraged my parents to pull the plug.
It’s strange explaining what it’s like to experience such an event. I had ultra-realistic dreams about talking with friends and family. I still recall many dreams with great detail. As I emerged into consciousness, my concentration tuned in and out and felt sort of fuzzy. I sometimes knew where I was and understood what people were saying to me. Yet, no one understood my communication attempts despite my constant effort.
The best advice I can pass on to any health care worker, family or friend is to treat stroke victims like they can hear you and understand.
In the early days after an aneurysm or stroke, keep in mind the person’s dignity and treat the individual as you normally would. We are still there.
Soon after I woke up, the rehabilitation process began. I started the path to relearn tasks, from speaking and basic reasoning to walking and eating. I was like a newborn learning how to swallow, then a toddler identifying shapes, colors and basic objects. I remember seeing a picture of a cat and wanting to say, “Why yes! That’s a Siamese cat.” What came out of mouth was something like a mixture of Latin and, maybe, squirrel.
Once I fully understood what I needed to do and how tasks would benefit me, I attacked every day (or almost everyday) with gusto. My dedicated therapy team accelerated my return to life, both physically and mentally. I took pride in the smallest of accomplishments. Whether learning new vocabulary, solving math word problems or listing five words starting with the letter “B,” those exercises changed my life.
Once my three-month inpatient rehab ended, my extended outpatient program continued for a year. My new speech-language pathologist listened carefully to my interests and career needs when developing goals. Assignments catered to my profession. We sat for hours discussing strategies to help me prepare for presentations and projects. These work-related tasks motivated me and expedited my to return to work six months earlier than planned.
Exactly one year after my traumatic brain injury, I obtained my augmented driver’s license. I went back to work and continued to problem-solve my mobility challenges. My speech, language and cognitive abilities returned to near-original functioning.
My family served as my rock through this unexpected journey. I don’t think they expected their golden years to be spent doing this. They trained with me and drove me everywhere, never complaining.
My employer, FluidEdge Consulting, offered ongoing support in the early years as I rose through the ranks, and continued that support during my recent trials and tribulations.
My speech-language team tremendously inspired and propelled my recovery. They gave me my life back. I am eternally grateful for each and every one of them. Erin Johnson, MS, CCC-SLP, and Kathleen Harbeson, MA, CCC-SLP, of Bryn Mawr Rehab in Pennsylvania—you gave me back the power of speech.
Marty Brennan III is a vice president with FluidEdge Consulting, working in the health care and higher education industries. He is a history nerd, Philadelphia Eagles/sports fanatic, and still reads every free second. email@example.com
Marty and I have been friends since high school, but connected mostly virtually as adults. He reached out one day telling me to “take pride in my profession” and told me how an SLP saved his “ability to communicate.” I invited myself over to talk to him and he graciously accepted.
We sat in his parents’ home at the kitchen table for a few hours sipping iced tea while he slowly shared his story. He recalled events and emotions with great detail. He explained everything from the 911 call to the gradual disappearance of friends. With anguish, he recalled how a psychologist hastily informed him that his life was essentially “over” and he would likely never get married or have children.
Marty repeatedly spoke of his speech-language pathology team with the highest regard.
Tricia Hedinger, MS, CCC-SLP