Life can change in the blink of an eye.
It’s a fact that Terry Hatch, a patient at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Barkley Speech Language and Hearing Clinic, knows well.
Ten years ago, Hatch was enjoying a lengthy career as a camera operator at NET when he had a stroke. The language center of his brain was damaged, and he was diagnosed with a speech disorder known as aphasia. The injury left him largely unable to communicate.
Learning to live with aphasia isn’t easy — but through Nebraska’s unique, long-term support system, Hatch and other stroke survivors in Lincoln are finding their voice again.
Two million people in the United States, including 14,000 to 22,000 Nebraskans, have aphasia.
The condition impairs the brain’s ability to match an idea with a word. It’s similar to forgetting someone’s name, or another piece of important information, even though it should come naturally. People with aphasia go through that frustrating process over and over each time they try to speak.
“Aphasia really is a constant state of that, where you’re trying to say a thing, or you’re trying to understand what someone’s saying to you. You should know what it is, but you just can’t get to it,” said Kristy Weissling, associate professor of practice and clinic coordinator. “There is a lot of frustration along with that. It can cause anger, sadness and disappointment. In the long-term, some people with aphasia can have depression because they’re not able to communicate what it is that they want to say.”
At Nebraska’s Barkley Speech Language and Hearing Clinic, Hatch and other patients participate in regular sessions with graduate students in the speech-language pathology program. During each visit, they practice words they can use for common situations and find ways to work around their language difficulties.
In 2015, Weissling and a group of Nebraska graduate students began a second program for stroke survivors — the Aphasia Community Partners program. The program pairs an aphasia patient with a volunteer, and the two meet throughout the month to go on social outings to movies, coffeehouses and more.
“Often, you don’t see people with aphasia because their communication is impacted. They might avoid social situations or their social networks really get very small. We started the Aphasia Community Partners program to help people expand their social networks, get back out into the community and get reconnected to the activities that they used to do, as well as new activities that they never had thought of before,” Weissling said.
Training the next generation
Describing his experience at the Barkley Clinic, Hatch uses one word: “family.”
The benefits of the clinic go both ways. Speech-language pathology students are gaining valuable hands-on experience for their future careers, getting a level of career preparation that’s rarely found elsewhere in the state.
“I just love helping others, and I think it’s a great way to do that and just get to know Terry and so many other individuals. I also think it’s a great experience for my field as well, just getting that experience when I’m younger and starting out and making sure that this is something I’m really passionate about. I think I found that, so that’s really awesome,” said Claire Kubicek, a sophomore speech-language pathology major and Aphasia Community Partners volunteer from Friend, Nebraska.
Moving forward, Weissling is excited about the program’s possibilities.
“It’s a win-win-win. That’s what I love most about what I do,” she said. “It’s a win because we’re training students in a top 20-ranked program in the country to become excellent speech language pathologists, which meets our teaching mission; we are providing service to people with communication needs, which meets our outreach mission; and we have top researchers informing what we teach and do, which fulfills our research mission. In that way, we win on all three fronts of a land-grant university’s obligation to the state.
“It’s just amazing to be able to watch the research come into the clinic and the classroom and see it all come together.”