Aphasia Day Speech

John Giving a Talk at the University of Washington

I am a survivor from a stroke that caused aphasia. Below is my story that I spoke on Aphasia Day in June 5th 2010 at the University of Washington.

Four years ago on December 15th, 2006, I had a hemorrhage in the temporal and occipital lobes of my brain. It occurred from a bacteria that caused my immune system to attack itself. I was not reckless nor abusing drugs, I was a “normal” student from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I was supposed to graduate the following year, but now my brain injury made it difficult to recite the English alphabet or complete simple arithmetic. I was not able to write a thesis or solve differential mathematics, which I did with ease just a few days earlier. Right after my injury I would not have been able to give this speech to you without being overwhelmed visually and getting a migraine.

Some people, including doctors, lumped me into a general category of patients with traumatic brain injuries. Despite the complex structure of the brain and each patient’s specific injury, we were given the same treatment. I had people tell me that I would never be able to complete a community college degree. But I ignored them and continued rehabilitation with the support of those doctors, nurses, therapists, family and friends that believed in me.

It was not easy. Several times, I wanted to quit and give up. My friends and family members reminded me of who I was; that I was never the injury, I was a human being that had dreams and was still capable of achieving them. I got extremely frustrated and annoyed at the English language. Parts of speech like prepositions, which are the shortest but most complex words in English, were especially frustrating. At times I contemplated forgetting English entirely and learning a different language. I felt belittled when therapists made me answer childish questions, like writing a list of animals. To make it more interesting my mom and I would refine the list using only birds, or animals that began with a specific letter like “s” to see if the therapist would notice that pattern. I felt more challenged by this play on words. If I could not do something, I would set it aside, and wait until tomorrow. I was never satisfied with failure.

After 18 months of rehabilitation, I reenrolled at MIT. The first thing I noticed was that I could not keep the same pace I was able to do before. I used to be able to take four different classes per semester, and now I had to take one class at a time. Before, I could take notes in class while listening to my iPod and working on a Sudoku. Now to keep up with the rigor, I needed software to recite the textbooks I had to read, record the lectures in addition to having the professor’s notes, enlist a writing tutor for my papers, and request longer time for my tests. By the end of the school year I had completed the major elective and senior thesis I needed. I was awarded my bachelor’s degree of material science and engineering last year on this very day.

I still find myself redefining the limitations of my injury as I continue to make progress. Earlier this year, I read books that I was not able to read last year. I have relearned to sight read piano music, and I am now able to read more difficult songs than I ever knew before my injury.

If it were not due to my will and support from others, I would not be able to talk to you today. My injury has changed the trajectory of my life, but I compensated to achieve my dreams. I am here to tell you that it is possible to overcome aphasia.

John at his graduation

You can also listen to the audio of this post:

aphasia speech recording

This post was originally published on John Pavlish’s blog and has been re-published on Aphasia Corner with author’s permission.

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