Health

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Aphasia: getting your voice back after having a stroke

Two groups are working towards building awareness of this condition, writes Áilín Quinlan

Tommy Nolan (centre) with Sergio Valentini and Dave Reilly of Rua Red, and speech and language therapists Aine Lawlor (left) and Niamh Barratt. DAVE MEEHAN

Last February, retired plumber Tommy Nolan suffered a stroke -- yet only a few months later he's teaching cafe staff how to deal with customers who have speech difficulties.

The married father of four adult children was quietly working in his garden while his wife was out shopping when, without warning, he recalls, "something came over me".

Just then the phone rang -- it was his eldest daughter Susan to say she was coming to visit.

To his shock, the 75-year-old found himself suddenly quite unable to speak.

"I don't know what happened," he recalls.

Luckily Susan was quick off the mark. She guessed that something was seriously amiss with her father, and immediately phoned the emergency services.

"Susan called the ambulance and they were very quick -- when I picked up the phone and didn't answer her she knew something was wrong. I couldn't talk."

Tommy was immediately rushed to Tallaght Hospital, where a doctor told him he'd had a stroke.

"I couldn't communicate, I was all over the place," he recalls.

"They kept me in for a week and I did every test under the sun."

The pensioner was delighted when he was eventually discharged from hospital -- but bad news awaited him at home:

"When I arrived home I was told my sister had passed away. I went from a high to a low. That was the worst time in my life.

"I'd been advised to go for speech therapy and I did six weeks of it," he says, but it emerged that the news of his sister's death -- they had been very close -- was affecting Tommy's recovery.

"I was very emotional, so the speech therapist suggested I get bereavement counselling because it was affecting my ability to benefit from the speech therapy."

He had four weeks of bereavement counselling, which he found extremely helpful, and soon the speech therapy began to show results. Tommy made excellent progress: "My speech came back. It's not bad at all. I can get a bit flustered at times and I might mix up some words, but I find that if I take it slowly I am grand. I am perfect!"

However, as it turned out, Tommy's speech therapist wasn't finished with him yet!

Trinity College's Speech and Language Therapy Department had set up a special group, The Aphasia Advocacy for Access group, for a group of people with communication difficulties.

This group decided to hold their new training programme in a busy city centre coffee shop, Cup, on Dublin's Nassau street.

Members of the group designed a training programme for the staff of Cup cafe .

They devised a curriculum which aimed to provide awareness about communication difficulties and tips for dealing with people with communication difficulties.

Following the training, the Cup Cafe was awarded a "Communication Friendly logo" from Trinity College.

The Trinity project caught the attention of speech therapists Niamh Barrett and Aine Lawlor, who provide the Adult Community Speech and Language Service in Dublin South West.

"We were aware of the project in Trinity and the need for something similar in our area," explains Aine.

'We wanted to try and remove some of the communication barriers people with communication difficulties face."

They approached Rua Red, a popular coffee shop in Tallaght about bringing the initiative to Tallaght, and to their delight the management of the cafe agreed to be involved:

Just as with the Trinity College project, members of the Tallaght group came together to create a tailor-made practical training programme for the staff of Rua Red cafe.

They spent four Fridays working on the programme, which aimed to increase the staff's awareness of communication difficulties and provide practical strategies for dealing with people with communication difficulties.

"It was really important for the project that it was the people themselves who gave the training, as they are the true 'experts' on communication difficulties and they shared their experiences of difficulties they encounter on a daily basis," says Aine.

The training day with the staff of Rua Red went extremely well.

"The staff responded very positively and took away practical strategies, including knowing about aphasia, giving more time, re-checking orders.

"The coffee shop has been great -- they're even going to do a picture menu as well for people who have severe communication difficulties.

Rua Red became the second establishment to receive the new "communication friendly" logo on November 8.

Promoting public awareness of Aphasia is very important, says Tommy.

"When you have a communication difficulty, it's not something people can see straight away.

"People don't know anything about it. I think the training programme is a brilliant idea because it makes people more aware of aphasia -- especially busy staff who could be dealing with people who cannot communicate properly.

'Some people have great difficulty, and it is important that there's more awareness about it.

"I think the logo is a good idea and I think good hotels, cafes and restaurants should do this course and learn the importance of being patient, being aware of Aphasia -- and of listening."

It's hoped that the project will expand to other facilities used by members of the public, says Aine.

"The idea is that people become more aware of Aphasia and that they will recognise the logo."

Irish Independent

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