Pen, pencil, book; they’re words Steven Garrell has said thousands of times.
But seven months ago, he not only lost the ability to say those words, but many others as well.
That’s because the 57-year-old had a stroke.
It happened on October 23, 2018.
Garrell was on the phone with a friend, when his speech started to slur.
Concerned, his friend called for an ambulance.
Within minutes paramedics were knocking on his Russell Street door, and he was taken to Kingston General Hospital.
“I couldn’t understand where I was or why I was even there,” recalled Garrell.
His stroke was on the left side of his brain; the area that controls language.
Garrell was able to speak a little, but the words he said weren’t the ones he meant to say and his speech was still slurred.
A week after his stroke, he began his rehabilitation as an inpatient at Providence Care Hospital.
That’s when he met Jessica Bouchard, a Speech Language Pathologist, and heard the word aphasia for the first time.
“Aphasia is difficulty with language and can happen as a result of a stroke, or any brain injury,” explained Bouchard.
“Understanding what people say, being able to talk, reading comprehension and writing – all those areas can be affected.”
Bouchard and a team of specialists, including a communicative disorders assistant, occupational therapist, physiotherapist, transitional case manager, different physicians and countless nurses, began working with Garrell right away.
“When he first got here it was hard for him to get his message across. He needed a lot of help and was dependent on the person he was talking to,” said Bouchard.
She worked with Garrell almost daily and the game plan included using communication strategies to help rebuild his vocabulary.
She started off small, by getting the 57-year-old to name common household objects.
“She was taking items like a fork, a hammer and a pencil, putting things down and asking me what it was,” described Garrell.
“It was difficult and it took me quite a while to acknowledge what it was.”
It would take him weeks, sometimes even a month to get the right words out.
One of the items he struggled with was screwdriver.
“I knew exactly what it was. It was in my hand but it took me quite a bit to say it, like three or four weeks,” recalled Garrell.
But he never gave up.
And the first time he said it, the stroke survivor felt empowered and that motivated him to hit the next milestone.
“Yes, I worked towards that goal and I got it. But I want something a little bit more than that. If I can do that, let’s try doing that, so I was proud of myself and it made me stronger,” beamed Garrell.
His willingness to put the work in was inspiring and his positive attitude wasn’t lost on Bouchard, who says aphasia patients can find the rehabilitation journey frustrating.
“We often take communication for granted. When communication is impaired it affects your whole life, your relationships, your activities, and it can be very isolating,” explained Bouchard.
“When people have aphasia they’re at a higher risk of developing a post-stroke depression. And a lot of times they might be afraid to talk to people.”
But Garrell wasn’t and he responded well to the different communication strategies Bouchard introduced.
“We did a lot of supported conversations, where I wrote down some keywords and referred back to those. We’ve done a lot of word finding strategies, either providing a gesture to kind of act out what you’re trying to say like charades, or we practice talking around a word, or using whatever is in the environment to point things out to people,” said Bouchard.
The 57-year-old also went above and beyond on his own time.
He worked with a volunteer to practice having conversations, attended weekly groups for social interaction and goes to the hospital library to read the newspaper every day.
He’s even learned new things about himself and has a desire to volunteer.
“I just enjoy helping and I didn’t know that in the beginning,” Garrell smiled.
“Steve is so helpful and he’s able to anticipate the needs of other people,” added Bouchard.
“He’s in the dining room getting people shirt savers, or getting people what they need from their rooms, he’s a huge help.”
The stroke survivor’s speech may not be at 100 percent.
“Sometimes I speak too quickly, so the words that come out are different words than I wanted to come out,” explained Garrell.
But it’s getting better every day.
“Steve is a success. He puts himself out there and he practices,” said Bouchard.
Things are looking so bright that Garrell is getting ready for his next chapter, leaving Providence Care Hospital.
He will be discharged in early June and move to London, Ontario to be closer to family.
Garrell says he’s grateful for his time at Providence Care Hospital and the team of people who helped him during his road to recovery.
“They’re special. Without a doubt I will be very emotional about it,” said Garrell.
“Every nurse, every professional that helped me, just wonderful people and to say goodbye is difficult.”
The 57-year-old added Providence Care has given him his voice back and the tools he needs to communicate.
And even though he’s emotional, it’s time to move on.
“I have to be stronger for myself, to improve my situation,” said Garrell.
“It’s like a big step you know, but I believe I have the strength.”