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Finding the words  again

Seven years after a stroke stole her words, 37-year-old Terri could utter only a single word at a time.

But then a new intensive program at the Marquette Speech and Hearing Clinic helped her get her words back, and within three weeks, she was speaking in lengthy sentences.

The research-based program in the College of Health Sciences is for people who suffer from chronic aphasia, a communication disorder that makes speaking difficult after a stroke or other brain injury. Marquette’s program uses a simple but powerful strategy: intense practice over a short period of time to force patients to use words instead of relying on nonverbal communication or a speech pathologist’s cues.

The concepts were adapted from a technique used in the physical rehabilitation of stroke patients that requires patients to use their paralyzed limb instead of the unaffected one. The technique is known as constraint-induced therapy.

“One of the problems for people with chronic aphasia is learned non-use,” says Jackie Podewils, coordinator of clinical services. That can mean pointing, gesturing and writing when you can’t say the words. Marquette’s program ensures aphasia patients talk for three hours a day, five days a week for three weeks. Activities range from playing the game “go fish” with noun and verb cards to naming pictures or answering questions.

For many patients, the program is a lifesaver. Although a handful of speech clinics elsewhere use a similar approach, those programs can cost upward of $20,000, while Marquette’s is only $1,500.

“We’re fortunate because we’re an educational institution, and we have graduate students to help provide therapy,” Podewils says.

Nearly 30 people have gone through the program so far. Because of the intensive one-on-one approach, the program can serve only four patients each semester.

Still, it’s already transforming lives. That was apparent when Terri went from speaking single words to leaving her husband an unforgettable voice mail message: “Matt and me Walmart shopping,” she said, then started laughing. She knew he would be shocked by her ability to say that much. Her husband saved the message because it was such a turning point in Terri’s recovery.

The clinic has also started using constraint-induced therapy with its regular twice-a-week patients, and it is yielding results.

“It is really a jewel,” Podewils says of the program. “It’s so exciting that we’ve found an approach that’s making such a dramatic difference.” NSE

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