Thursday, January 17, 2008

In search of lost words

Damage to the brain may have taken their language skills but time at Toastmasters helps get them back
From Friday's Globe and Mail
December 7, 2007 at 8:40 AM EST
It's Friday morning, and Jack Geller has 60 seconds to address his weekly public speaking group, on the topic: What is your favourite opera, and why?

It should be an easy task for the former lawyer and one-time acting head of the Ontario Securities Commission, a classical music fan who, at 77, has decades of arias dancing through his head.

"This one is very good," he says, his eyes lighting up behind thick glasses. "This one are quite different."

His hands gesture toward unseen divas, as he tries to pin down their movements with words.

"This one is very close," he continues haltingly, the minute ticking by. "I was very surprised."

And then, just before a red light flashes to indicate his time is up, Mr. Geller does the one thing he can to really explain what his favourite opera is and why - he sings.

"Laaaaaaaaa," he intones deeply, his arms rising in triumphant finale.

His audience nods and bursts into loud applause.

This is the Toastmasters International Aphasia Gavel Club, a collection of men and women whose powers of communication have been destroyed by a stroke, tumour, bike accident or car crash.

With damage to the left hemisphere of their brains, their ability to talk, write and even comprehend language has been affected.

For some, words have crept back slowly, allowing them to put pen to paper, voice to thought. Others, like Mr. Geller, who suffered a stroke in 2002, find language elusive even years later.

And yet they come together each week to practise their public speaking, a pastime even the most able-bodied people fear.

To this group, facing a captive audience is less frightening than addressing an impatient world.

"The thing they're most afraid of is that people will think they're stupid or mentally ill or drunk," said Susan Watt, a speech-language pathologist at Toronto's Aphasia Institute, which hosts the meetings. "When they go into that room, they don't have to explain."

The room is a generic meeting space, where former university professors and entrepreneurs, engineers and philanthropists can rebuild their confidence through verbal trial and error.

Like many of the approximately 100,000 Canadians

living with aphasia, they

are linked by what they have lost - not just the ability to

co-ordinate mind and mouth, but the existence they once shared as professionals, one of structure, drive, and competition.

Mr. Geller's wife, Sybil, learned of the program while he was still in hospital after his stroke. At the time, she looked at her husband and thought, "only the shell remains."

"He was a communicator, a teacher, a mentor, a negotiator," she said of his life before.

Today, Mr. Geller has once again taught himself to read, count and get out what words he can. His enthusiastic delivery makes up for the vocabulary he lacks.

"Aphasia is not a diminishing of intelligence," said his wife. "His ability to analyze a situation has not changed."

But at the aphasia institute is still where he is most

secure, among those who do not remember the time

when his words flowed with ease.

"These people come from different walks of life, but

they have three things in

common," said Ms. Geller. "Guts, incredible intelligence, and a sense of humour."

Each meeting begins with a joke, and former pharmaceutical executive Bob Jones is telling a dirty one about a vicar and a woman who has sex every time she gets drunk.

If aphasia reduces many people's speech to a slow trickle, its byproduct in some is a deadpan comic timing that often brings the group to hysterics.

"Well," says Mr. Jones mischievously, delivering the punchline. "Let's pour you a drink ... and see ... how I ... can help."

Absent is the bluster and bravado of most public speaking forums; aphasia sufferers use the words they can muster to express things they really mean, language demonstrated at its most basic and poetic.

When Harold Shield describes his favourite movie, The Sound of Music, he does not list its stars, but remembers that it made him "feel wonderful."

Required to describe a local landmark, Deanne Atkinson says she would spruce up Casa Loma.

"In Toronto when we see old things ... we should cherish them," she says. "Cherish what you have."

They listen to one another intently, ready to jump in if another member stumbles.

As 85-year-old Betty Wangenheim grasps for the starting point of a cross-country trip, someone calls out, "Airport?"

"No, it's on the ground," she says.

Train station?

Yes, train station.

Chris Bernhard, who had a stroke two years ago at age 40, must talk for one minute about a Toronto theatre, but sits down after seconds.

"My mother bought me tickets, but I can't remember why," he says. "All right, I'm stuck. Thanks."

The group claps for everyone, but does not condescend. They vote for the best short presentation each week, and formally critique the longer speeches, commending Ms. Wangenheim's lack of written notes and questioning Mr. Jones's "so-so" humour.

If some excel beyond others, it is due to the complexity of their injury, not their confidence at the podium.

"Good morning!" says S. M. Tse. It has been eight years since his stroke, but the 56-year-old has mastered just this one phrase. When Ms. Watt first met the diminutive man, she thought she recognized him as a former patient. He was actually one of her professors at the University of Toronto.

Across the table is Leon Kondiah, an engineer until three years ago, when the car he was riding in was hit by a drunk driver. Now the 30-year-old does not work, and has a large dent in the left side of his forehead where part of his skull was removed.

Dennis Brans was a lawyer before his stroke, which has left him with the slightly stilted cadence of Christopher Walken. He used to be afraid of public speaking, a hang-up that was wiped away along with his former workaholic life.

"I would never," he said of joining Toastmasters back when he could really speak. "I couldn't."

Although some family members come to watch the weekly sessions, Mr. Geller's usually stay at home. One of his four children, a lawyer, says she would be terrified to speak in front of the accomplished group. His wife refrains because there are so few things that are now her husband's alone.

"Until he was 72 he was the one that people looked to, to take charge, to make decisions," Ms. Geller said. "Now he has to look to me to speak for him. Can you imagine?"

After 56 years of marriage, it has been magical to see him regain his speech, his confidence, the pleasure in his days, she says.

"It's like sunshine. It's given him back his life."

During a coffee break at one meeting, Mr. Geller nods enthusiastically when asked if he enjoys public speaking.

"At first it's like this," he demonstrates, opening and shutting his mouth without making a sound. "And then ... it gets better."