September 2021 Tom Broussard
September 16, 2021
This Thing Called Aphasia
My name is Tom Broussard. I am 69 years old and, like all of us as we get older, we have plenty of stories to share! But in my case, I will share just one of them.
I had lots of jobs, often with quite different career directions in my life, starting with the U.S. Navy. I loved going to sea and started as an engineer on a destroyer. Then I converted to Supply Corps and then submarines as a Supply Officer. After leaving the Navy, I moving into shipbuilding and eventually became Director, Mechanical Engineering and Design at BIW. After a few more jobs, I realized that as much as I loved going to sea and loved building ships, the next choice for me was building the shipbuilders themselves. At that point, I shifted to education and employment.
I started Career Prospects, Inc. and ran that for 15 years in southern Maine with customers around the state. My interest included assisting people with disabilities find work. As time went by, I realized that I needed another tool, a research tool, to help me help others. I applied to The Heller School at Brandeis University and, late in life (I was 54 years old), I graduated with a research Ph.D. in Social Policy in workforce development and disabilities studies. My expertise was working with people with disabilities to pursue employment. I worked at Vassar for a semester and then back to The Heller School as assistant, and then associate dean.
I worked there for five years until I fell down on Main St. in Waltham, MA with a stroke. The last thing I remembered was staring at my shoes. At that point, I had no idea what had happened. My wife and I were walking and when she turned around, she saw that I was in trouble. She knew I was having a stroke and she dragged me to the local CVS and the pharmacy in the back. The EMTs arrived and took me to MGH quickly. I was lucky enough to get tPA in time, and that dissolved my clot, and the paralysis in my right arm, right leg, and loss of vision in my right eye were restored.
Once I woke up at the hospital and came to understand what had happened, I assumed that everything was fine and I could go home. I didn’t realize that there was one more deficit that I didn’t know about, this thing called aphasia. People with stroke and aphasia often don’t know what they don’t know. I didn’t know that I had lost my language and could not read, write or speak well. That is the beginning of any aphasia recovery; one has to become aware of one’s deficits in order to target one’s deficits. I became more aware of aphasia, its symptoms and the tools that were needed to regain one’s language, but I learned it doesn’t happen overnight. All of my clinicians, OTs, PTs, SLPs, and doctors, helped start a lifelong journey towards recovery.
As I got better, I realized that after having my stroke and aphasia, aphasia recovery was the research issue and aphasia was the tool presented to me. No one wants any of this to happen if it can be avoided but experiencing all of this (and explaining what I couldn’t express before) is the best path forward once it’s in your hands.
Aphasia is a terrible language disorder that affects 25-40% of people with a stroke yet few people know anything about aphasia, even in the healthcare community! I started Stroke Educator, Inc. with a mission to educate the wider public about stroke, aphasia, and plasticity, the foundation of all learning. It is my sixth year, with four books, dozens of articles, over 300 presentations, 30 states, and almost 10,000 people so far learning and talking about recovery and how the brain really works.
And after all of this, the underlying foundation that supports everything I do are my new friends of all stripes in the brain injury world. It is incredibly difficult to heal a damaged brain using the same damaged brain as the tool and tiller that is needed to steer to calmer waters. I learned from my new friends, that “knowing oneself” takes on a whole new perspective of brain injury “no more remarkable than that the boat obeys the handling of him who sails it” (*Sherrington, 1941).
*Sherrington, CS. (1941) Man on His Nature. Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., New York.