Years After Stroke

Excerpt of Article written by Erin Allday | SFGate

Photo Credit: Craig Hudson, The Chronicle
Photo Credit: Craig Hudson, The Chronicle

When a person suddenly loses the ability to speak or to understand what others are saying, the hardships that cascade from that loss can be overwhelming – from the seemingly trite to the devastatingly depressing.

What hit Derrick Wong, 49, hardest was losing the ability to tell a joke. Ralph Soriano, 56, hates taking his car to the mechanic, knowing he will barely understand what’s being said.

Both men are longtime members of a group therapy program at the Aphasia Center of California, an Oakland nonprofit that offers treatment and ongoing education to people who have suffered communication disorders as a result of stroke or other brain injury.

The nonprofit specializes in long-term therapy, an area of aphasia treatment that has taken off in the past few years. For many decades, doctors and speech pathologists assumed that patients had a window of six months to a year to recover language skills lost to a brain injury.

Now, anecdotal reports and clinical research suggest that the window is much wider, and may even stay open a lifetime.

“There is evidence that people can improve and regain skills, even years after a stroke,” said Blair Menn, a speech language pathologist at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Redwood City. “Everybody wants a quick cure, and brain recovery does not go quickly. People have to adjust their time frame. But the flip is that we’ve seen patients, one, two, three years outside of a stroke still make gains.”

It’s unclear, Menn added, whether patients who improve are truly repairing damage done to their brain or just getting better at compensating for language deficits. “But as far as I’m concerned, it’s a success either way,” he said.

Aphasia occurs because of damage in the left side of the brain, and the type of aphasia depends on precisely where in the left hemisphere the injury is focused. Aphasia is common in stroke because one of the main arteries leading to the left side of the brain also happens to be one of the easiest targets for blood clots and tears to the blood vessel.

Click here to read the full article written by Allday, who is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: eallday@sfchronicle.com.

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