On Apr. 11, 2008, Elmira resident Frank Austin had a great day. In the morning he was offered a job as a personal support worker, the job he aspired to do after working for 13 years as a bailiff. He had gone through all the necessary training, the applications and the interviews and that Friday the job came through – he was set to start Monday morning. Later in the afternoon he picked up his son from preschool and they went to get haircuts. The next morning Frank awoke in his bed needing to go to the bathroom, but was completely paralyzed except for some slight movement in one of his hands: he had suffered a stroke.
Austin recovered quite quickly when it came to his physical mobility – he is now able to function as he was before the stroke – but since the incident he has been plagued with aphasia, or difficulty with producing and understanding spoken or written language. Those afflicted may speak slowly and haltingly, with tremendous difficulty finding words, or conversely, may be very fluent but say wrong words and have grammar mistakes such that other people cannot understand them.
“I still feel … dumb,” Austin said after taking a moment to decide on the phrasing. “I don’t like using that word, but that’s how I felt and how I still feel oftentimes.”
Austin is anything but. His language has improved so dramatically since his first attempts at speech that his impairment isn’t immediately noticeable to people he meets and converses with. However some people who first meet Austin can make assumptions, and underestimate his abilities because of his difficulties with language.
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“Only recently am I able to read to my son at bedtime,” he said. “That has been tough.”
After being released from the hospital, Austin was directed to a speech and writing rehabilitation centre more than an hour’s drive from his home, but that service was only covered by his insurance for one year.
“They were very helpful and my speech is far better now than it was,” he explained. “But when I was sent home still feeling this way I thought, ‘Now what?’”
Following the stroke, he was forced to turn down his dream job. He was offered a job at Foodland in Elmira, stocking shelves overnight. Although he was very appreciative of the opportunity to work, he still hopes to one day return to his chosen career path once his language skills have improved to a satisfactory level. The best way to rehabilitate, said Austin, is to practice. As there are currently no support services available in this area, he has begun to take matters into his own hands by creating a website: www.kwstrokesurvivor.com.
On the site, Austin posts information about upcoming stroke-related events in the Kitchener-Waterloo-Woolwich area, information about how to recognize the signs and symptoms of stroke, as well as an open forum for discussion. Because the site has only been in operation for a short period of time, there are currently no entries in the “others’ journeys” section, but Austin hopes that with continued use, stroke survivors will feel comfortable enough to share their own insight and stories online.
“If I can’t get a job that is fulfilling, I may as well do something productive, and it’s also good therapy for me.”
His ultimate goal for this project is the creation of a support group for local people who have had a stroke and are suffering from aphasia. Currently he is required to drive 90 minutes to Georgetown, the closest support centre for people who suffer from aphasia; Austin said he is sure that a great number of people would benefit from a service if it were provided locally.
“It would be great if there was somewhere in town that people could go just to practice their speech,” he suggested. “Nothing formal, but maybe half a day per week where stroke sufferers and their families could go and interact with others.”
Austin said he will continue to drive to Georgetown until something can be done here in Woolwich, but sees his website as a step in the right direction.
“I hope that people in my situation will check out the website and give me a call. It’s got to be better than sitting at home, not knowing where to go.”