Recovery, by the book

Recovery, by the book

Speech-language pathologists start a book club for people with aphasia

By Laura Mize

Speech-language pathologist Jessica Obermeyer discusses the book “A Dog’s Life” with Ken Piatrowski, 65, during the aphasia book club. Photo by Maria Belen Farias.

Jessica Obermeyer, M.S., CCC-SLP, works full time helping patients who are striving to recover or retain the ability to speak as they battle conditions such as cancer, brain injury and stroke.

But many people, she said, need help beyond formal therapy, especially those who have the language disability aphasia.

“Because of the nature of aphasia, a lot of the people who are discharged still have some language deficits,” said Obermeyer, a speech-language pathologist in the college’s department of speech, language, and hearing sciences.

Aphasia, which is a common result of stroke, inhibits a person’s ability to comprehend language and use it to express him or herself. In the most extreme cases, aphasia renders a person unable to speak or write coherently, or to understand what he or she reads or hears. Patients with less severe cases struggle with these activities to varying degrees.

“We wanted to create something where people with aphasia could come, whether they’re our patients or not … and be with other people with aphasia, but also be participating in something fun and social,” Obermeyer said.

Obermeyer and Shands Rehab Hospital clinical speech-language pathologist Kerry Lenius, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, founded a book club for patients with aphasia last summer, and the club meets every other week at Shands Rehab Center at Magnolia Parke. About five patients, some accompanied by caregivers, attend the group to discuss “A Dog’s Life” by Peter Mayle. The book is a fictional memoir written from the perspective of a dog living in France.

Wilmer White, a dog lover, found plenty to relate to in the group’s first discussion. But expressing his thoughts didn’t come as easily. A stroke left White with aphasia and another condition, called apraxia, which inhibits his ability to speak, even when he knows what he wants to say. The two conditions often go hand-in-hand.

White worked with Lenius to relearn basic communication skills while he was a patient at Shands Rehab Hospital. Now, he sees Obermeyer for continued speech therapy.

“One is a …” White said before a long pause, trying to remember the breed of one of his four pet dogs.

After several failed attempts, he motioned with his hands to demonstrate the dogs’ size. Obermeyer started guessing dog breeds to jog his memory.

“Chi-hua-hua,” White finally uttered slowly. “One little … poodle, one of those, and three chihuahuas.”

These are the kinds of interactions Obermeyer says can help people with aphasia feel better about their communication skills and remain active in life.

Several months into the group, Obermeyer said the participants, including White, “are much more willing to initiate conversation and share their stories.”

“He’s making comments and answering questions and just attempting to talk a lot more, not without difficulty, but he is making that attempt,” she said.

Without formal testing, she can’t tell if participants’ reading skills have changed. And some people remain active in formal therapy, making it impossible to measure exactly how much of a difference the book club is making.

But Obermeyer said she knows it’s helping them.

“It’s all about functional interaction and socialization, getting these people to interact more in their environment,” she said. “Because, I’m sure you can imagine, having a communication disorder really affects how well we engage with other people and with our environment.”