Stroke victims gather on UND campus to reclaim livesThe words come one by one in a steady voice, as if each enunciated word was dispensed rather than spoken. “I was at home on a Saturday night, and I was playing bridge on the computer,” Leila Olson says. Slowly, she reaches to touch the side of her head. “I was a speech pathologist for 32 years,” she says, struggling slightly with the word that had defined her adult working life in the Grand Forks public schools. “So I knew it was a stroke.”
By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald
The words come one by one in a steady voice, as if each enunciated word was dispensed rather than spoken.
“I was at home on a Saturday night, and I was playing bridge on the computer,” Leila Olson says.
Slowly, she reaches to touch the side of her head.
“I was a speech pathologist for 32 years,” she says, struggling slightly with the word that had defined her adult working life in the Grand Forks public schools.
“So I knew it was a stroke.”
Six other stroke victims listen as Olson narrates her story of loss, depression and recovery. Seven UND graduate students in speech pathology also listen, encouraging Olson with smiles, nods and the occasional verbal cue.
“So did you call 911, Leila?”
She smiles, knowing she is being gently chided by someone who has heard her story before.
“No,” she says. “I went to bed.”
The smile fades.
“I was hoping I would die.”
The group session is a weekly gathering in old Montgomery Hall. Long ago, before Chester Fritz, this was the UND Library. In what may have been a student reading room, adults who once had professions and careers grapple now with letters and numbers, words and sentences, concepts and the courage needed to express them.
Most also participate in a listening group, where they work on reading, writing and spelling.
The young graduate students guide and encourage them with maps, photographs, number charts and folders containing personal touches — a grandson’s picture, tools used in their work — that may stimulate speech or at least inspire a gesture.
The student guides are gentle but also firm, friendly without seeming condescending.
“I’ve seen such a broad spectrum of how a stroke can affect people,” said Danielle Seil, a graduate student from Bismarck. “Sometimes you see a big recovery, sometimes not so big.
“You have to be patient and accept little gains as huge achievements. But it’s really encouraging when you see all the strategies they use to communicate.”
The group sessions at UND’s Speech, Language and Hearing Clinic started three-plus years ago when a graduate student wanted to try it as part of her research. It worked for her, and the clients liked it. Many had run out of insurance coverage for counseling or rehabilitation, and they had been referred to the UND clinic.
Each had suffered a stroke that, for most, affected the ability to speak, read and write, a condition known as aphasia. An artery popped, causing cranial bleeding, or a clot formed and went to the brain, or a tumor took over a portion of the brain.
Some people die from stroke. Many recover but struggle to do things they once did with grace.
“They may have problems finding words,” said Peg Biberdorf, a clinical supervisor. “They want to say ‘coffee cup’ and it comes out ‘tottee top.’
“How do you write a check or sign your name if you can’t string the letters together? How do you open the newspaper and see what the weather is going to be like?”
Diane Sander, another clinical supervisor, said stroke can affect personality. Impatience, frustration and a profound sense of loss can lead to anger.
“Here, they can practice language skills in a safe environment with people who know what they went through and what they’re going through,” she said. “It has become a support group. Some of these folks go out for dinner or a drink on Thursday nights after they finish here. If somebody has to be in the hospital, the others will visit.”
Someone to talk to
It isn’t the only support group meeting Thursdays at Montgomery.
Down the hall, a half dozen women spend the 90 minutes visiting over coffee, cookies and shared hope in a clinical waiting room: wives of the men who have had strokes.
“He didn’t want to come,” Carla Kouba says of her husband, Brad, who suffered a stroke two years ago. “He said he was going to come one time, and that’s it.”
Brad Kouba is a regular now. During a recent group session, he told about spending part of the previous week painting chairs. He answered questions that drew out words and numbers — how many chairs, what color, how many coats of paint — and he beamed with pride when he managed a particularly challenging response.
“What kind of chairs, Brad?”
“He really likes the camaraderie,” his wife said. “After the meeting, he tells me what he said and did."
“And it’s been good for me. I didn’t have anybody to talk to, either. I didn’t know any other wife whose husband had a stroke before.”
Doris Vasek’s husband, Henry, was a Polk County commissioner before he suffered a stroke 12 years ago.
“It’s been a long road,” she said. “He still can’t actually talk to people. But he’s more apt now to go out among people. He knows that if he works at it, he can communicate.”
Back in the group, Henry is working at it. Asked how he spent the previous week, he tells through words and gestures how he worked on a tractor and cut windfall trees around his hunting shack near Mountain, N.D.
He stands to show how he couldn’t use his right arm or leg after the stroke. But he gradually straightens the leg and uses his left arm to lift his right, showing how the range of movement gradually improved, until finally he thrusts the right arm high on its own.
Tom the ambassador
Leila Olson is finishing her story.
She is smiling again, a little impishly, as she tells about the day after she went to bed hoping to die so she wouldn’t have to deal with the effects of a stroke. As a speech pathologist for decades, she knew what it could mean.
She packed a bag. “I knew I could be in the hospital five or six days before I died,” she said.
She drove — by herself — to her doctor’s office, which she concedes now she shouldn’t have done. Her doctor wasn’t in, so she tried to tell nurses what had happened.
“Gibberish came out of my mouth.”
She spent days in the hospital, then many more days in rehabilitation, gradually accepting that she wasn’t going to die.
She also realized she had good reasons to live, including her bridge club. Today, stroke be damned, she remains an intense competitor.
“Tom was my doctor,” she says, turning to smile at the courtly man who sat to her right.
A folded construction-paper nameplate — “Tom” — sat on the table in front of Dr. Tom Cariveau, 55, who was a family practitioner in East Grand Forks when he suffered a stroke on Nov. 8, 2007.
He went through a six-week therapy program at the University of Michigan. When he came home, he continued therapy, including many hours at the UND clinic.
Soon he was recruiting other people who had suffered strokes to participate in the weekly conversation groups. He appeared at gatherings of medical students and at service clubs to share what he now knows from experience. At first, his wife spoke for him. But as he gradually regained speaking ability, he told his story himself.
“They call him the ambassador,” Kim Cariveau said.
The Cariveaus wrote the grant proposal that won funding for the listening group from the North Dakota Department of Health. And while she compares notes with the other wives, the doctor continues to join the Thursday conversations, joking and listening and striving with the other stroke survivors.
Last Thursday, he explained how the stroke had come while he was at work, which was lucky, but it took a minute to persuade his nurses that he was in trouble.
“They thought I was fooling,” he said.
“They see there’s other people out in the world who have had to fight through this, and it gives them confidence to try,” Kim Cariveau said. “It gives them a way to practice.
“Tom was a physician. He lost his livelihood. He lost friends. He lost his ability to communicate. You have to rebuild your whole life after a stroke, and it’s hard.
“He says it’s getting easier. And as he gets better, he has inspired others. He’s still inspiring.”
Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.