Herald Journal - Enterprise Dispatch - Delano Herald Journal
Living with aphasia

Jan. 12, 2009

Dassel woman, Deb Ryan now faces the challenging communication disorder as a result of a stroke

By Kristen Miller
Staff Writer

DASSEL, MN - As if four open heart surgeries, multiple strokes, temporary blindness, and high doses of medication weren’t enough, 41-year-old Deb Ryan of Dassel now struggles with communicating her thoughts and words.

Deb and John Ryan moved to Dassel in 1999 from Michigan with their two daughters, Sarah, 19, and Kaitlyn, 16.

Deb began working for the Dassel-Cokato High School as a personal nurse for a special needs student before becoming a health aide at the middle school in 2003.

Throughout her life, Deb has had an extensive cardiac history. She had her aortic valve replaced with a St. Jude’s mechanical valve, making her prone to blood clots.

To control her blood clotting levels, Deb takes more than 50 milligrams of the common blood thinner, Coumadin.

Deb’s husband, John, noted this amount even astounds doctors since the average person taking the drug only needs three to eight milligrams.

In 2004, Deb suffered a major stroke affecting her primary vision center, resulting in complete blindness for over a year.

After only a slight improvement in her vision, the doctors told Deb that it was as good as her vision would get.

Apparently, God had a different diagnosis for Deb.

“God healed it and improved [her vision],” John said, though explained she still has no peripheral vision in her right eye.

Deb was able to return to work for the 2005-06 school year, up until last August, when she suffered from another life-changing stroke.

This time, the stroke affected the left side of her brain, which controls speech, written language, numbers, reasoning scientific functions, and feeling on the right side of the body, according to the National Stroke Association.

As a result of this last stroke, Deb now suffers from aphasia, a communication disorder affecting mainly her speech, reading, writing, and language comprehension.

After a week at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, Deb was transferred to Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, located at Abbott.

Learning to speak again

Before entering Sister Kenny, Deb’s only words were “Thank you.”

After two weeks of extensive rehabilitation including speech, physical, and occupational therapy, Deb was able to return home mid-September.

At that point, Deb was only able to say simple words relating to her home life such as her daughters’ names, but no full sentences.

She received in-home rehabilitation, home health care, and 24-hour supervision.

Deb then had three more weeks of intensive speech therapy at North Memorial Hospital’s Intensive Aphasia Program.

During the pre-evaluation, even the simplest of tests administered were too difficult for Deb to complete.

In her post-evaluation, Deb had improved so much – especially in reading comprehension – she was able to complete all of the tests available.

Through this intense therapy, Deb’s aphasia improved in severity from “moderate” to “mild.”

She continues speech and occupational therapy three times a week at Sister Kenny in Buffalo.

Though her speech has improved greatly, prepositions, or the “connecting” words such as “in,” “at,” and “of,” can be difficult for Deb.

Deb also explains that even though a person with aphasia may have trouble with language, it doesn’t mean they can’t think clearly.

Aphasia, for her, she said, is like having “the words on the tip of your tongue.”

Through her therapy, Deb’s primary focus is working on using those missing words to help form more complete sentences, as well as basic accounting such as balancing a checkbook.

‘God smiles on Debbie’

John calls his wife “a miracle.”

“God smiles on Debbie,” he said.

There are several reasons John sees his wife as a miracle including the fact that the doctors didn’t think she would ever be able to see again.

Deb is still legally blind, which means she can’t drive a vehicle, but she no longer uses Braille or a walking cane, as she did four years ago.

John also says it’s a gift from God that Deb was able to so quickly get into the North Memorial Intensive Aphasia Program, which has drastically improved her symptoms.

John was told there was a waiting list of six months to a year, and had been playing “phone tag” with a representative from the program to see if Deb could get in any sooner.

When he finally reached the representative, she told him, “If you had called yesterday, I would’ve said ‘no.’”

“For some reason, someone canceled from the program and Deb was able to get in,” John said.

“Everything fell together,” John said. “That program has been very instrumental in how far Debbie has come,” he said.

A community of support

When Deb was asked about how the community has shown support through this difficult time, she said, “my family is amazed.”

Deb went on to explain that the Dassel-Cokato community comes together in times of tragedy to help those in need.

“The support of the community has been tremendous,” John said.

“It was the best thing for us, as a family, to move here,” he added.

Deb also said that the school has been an extension of her family.

Deb cared a lot about her kids and is missed because of her caring and positive attitude, said Middle School Secretary and former co-worker, Cindy Swanson.

“She was always willing to help wherever she was needed,” Swanson said.

The family also appreciates all the support they’ve received from their friends and church family.

Deb especially appreciates those who came and sat with her, not only for safety reasons, but also helping her do her therapy “homework.”

She explained a key to her improvement is having conversations with others.

Deb’s sister-in-law, Linda Antonich, who is hosting a benefit for the family, admires Deb for having such a positive attitude after all she has endured.

Living with aphasia

Deb will be the first to admit she does get frustrated when she knows what she wants to say, but can’t get it out correctly.

She also knows, though, there is nothing she can do but keep working on it.

Deb explained she can either be mad and cry about her situation or she can laugh and do the best she can. Deb chooses to laugh.

Though her family is very helpful, they, as well, get frustrated because they want to help Deb, but know they can’t.

“Frustration feeds on frustration,” John said.

It’s also hard when Deb encounters people who don’t understand her condition or what aphasia is.

Deb told of a time she was in a store and had to write out a check. Because aphasia makes it more difficult and longer to write, the people in line were becoming impatient. To speed up the process, Deb had her daughter write the check for her.

Deb explained there are many things she can still do, but it’s easier to have someone help do them so it doesn’t take as long.

She will often say it was easier for her to be blind than to have aphasia. Because she became blind from a stroke later in life and was not born blind, Deb knew what the world looked like.

Also, her other senses would compensate for the one she didn’t have.

Now, with aphasia, there is nothing to compensate.

Aside from therapy, Deb tries to keep busy doing things around the house and volunteering once a week at the Save and Share Thrift Shop in Cokato. She also helps serve meals with, and cleans up after the monthly senior luncheons at the First Baptist Church of Cokato.

To learn more about Deb’s case, visit her caring bridge web site at www.caringbridge.org.

Facts about aphasia

According to the National Aphasia Association, aphasia is an acquired communication disorder that impairs a person’s ability to process language, but does not affect intelligence.

Its most common cause is a stroke with about 25 to 40 percent of stroke survivors acquiring it.

Aphasia affects about one million Americans, or one in 250 people, making it more common than Parkinson’s Disease, cerebral palsy, or muscular dystrophy, according to the association.

Though a full recovery is unlikely if the symptoms last longer than two to three months after a stroke, a person with aphasia can continue to improve.

Aphasia does not affect a person’s intelligence, though they may have difficulty retrieving words and names.

According to the National Aphasia Association, “. . . for people with aphasia, it is the ability to access ideas and thoughts through language – not the ideas and thoughts themselves – that are disrupted.

For more information about aphasia, visit www.aphasia.org.

Tips for communicating

The National Aphasia Association suggests when communicating with a person who has aphasia, make sure you have their attention before communicating with them.

Also, minimize background noise such as television and radio during the conversation.

Keep communication simple, yet adult, and simplify sentences as well as reduce the rate of speech.

It was also noted, one does not need to speak louder since they are not hard of hearing, but it is suggested to emphasize key words.

Most importantly, give the person time to talk; be patient with them and allow them time to respond.

Benefit Saturday for Deb Ryan

John’s sister, Linda Antonich, had the idea of hosting a benefit for Deb Ryan to cover medical costs that have accrued in the past four years as well as continual therapy.

A spaghetti dinner, silent auction and raffle will take place at the First Baptist Church of Cokato, Saturday, Jan. 17 from 1 to 6 p.m.

Silent auction items include an autographed photograph and T-shirt from Minnesota Viking Adrian Peterson, a fishing outing on Lake Superior, Timberwolves tickets, Wild tickets, a tackle box, basket of Ireland souvenirs, baked goods, a variety of gift baskets, and more.

Raffle tickets can be purchased at the benefit or in advance for $1, or six for $5.

The raffle features a first place prize of a Minnesota Twins tickets gift package, and a second place prize of a homemade Swedish afghan.

Tickets for the benefit are $8 for adults, $5 for children, and children 3 and under eat free. Takeout will also be available.

Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance by calling (320) 275-9771.


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