(La Jolla, CA-- March 2016)
It’s been about a year, so an update is definitely due!
It’s been another year of continued hard work and gains for Geoff, with some unexpected surprises as well. As Geoff often reminds me, “It’s a long, long journey,” but when you have some solid gains it makes the journey feel a little easier.
It has been six years, but it feels like two. Time kind of stopped six years ago for us; things move on around us, our children are growing up, but we are still in this unworldly zone of stroke recovery.
About 10 months ago, Geoff said he finally felt the fog lift. It was a heavy fog that just sat there in his mind, kind of like he was viewing life from behind a curtain. Once the fog lifted, he suddenly felt a clarity he hadn’t known since pre-stroke. He felt ready to begin cautiously re-entering life again.
And so he did. He began working on expanding the bike trail in our area again, something that had been a big part of his life pre-stroke. With some help of family and good friends (for the communication aspect), he began brainstorming over trail ideas and re-igniting community support as well as support from local government officials.
He was also part of a fascinating speech study at the University of South Carolina Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina. It involved mild electrical stimulation on the head adjacent to the damaged area of the brain at the same time as doing a unique speech therapy. Geoff did this nearly every day for a month. It was a double blind study, so we don’t know if Geoff actually had the electric stimulation or not (either way, the machine vibrates and makes a noise, so you can’t tell), but he feels that the difference he began experiencing during the second half of the study was remarkable. He felt much more able to concentrate in the moment on the words he was trying to produce and using the proper syntax. There are always so many things to think about in the moment, that it can be overwhelming for Geoff — (What should the subject be? Is the verb past or present or future? Do I need a helping verb? What subject pronoun should I use? and on and on). All of this still requires very conscious, intentional thinking, but during the study, Geoff felt all of this come with less effort. Maybe it was just a coincidence, or maybe not.
Since then, we continue to plug away at all aspects of language. When a different area other than the typical language area of the brain is trying to learn language, it is a slow and tedious process. My understanding is that there is no pre-set language neural network in other areas of the brain, so he is not just learning a new language, but he has to first create the networks that will enable him to learn and then permanently hold the language. As someone has described this, it’s like creating a track on a hard dirt road with a bike. After going over the road a few times, you probably will see barely any marks left at all. You have to go over it and over it and over it, probably thousands of times, before it is an actual permanent trail.
So, when Geoff is learning some aspect of language, he may understand just a bit of it, and then maybe we’ll move on to something else. When we come back around to it again, he may “get” a little more of it this time. Six months later he gets a little more of it still. It is baffling to Geoff that this process is so slow and stubborn. At the same time, it was very exciting last month when after working with diagraming sentences, Geoff suddenly had a clearer understanding of it all in a way he hadn’t earlier, even though of course we have been working on it all along. “This is fascinating,” he said, shaking his head at the wonder of English grammar.