Stroke patients lose words from aphasia but get much needed help through Houston Aphasia Recovery Center

Aphasia is the communication disorder brought to light recently when actor Bruce Willis revealed his diagnosis. 

Approximately 43,000 Houstonians are dealing with aphasia, but there's a local recovery center, Houston Aphasia Recovery Center (HARC), that works to help them get their words back. 

MORE: Bruce Willis diagnosed with aphasia, 'stepping away' from acting, family reveals

Cheryl Adamson was their very first client, after she suffered a stroke twelve years ago when she was just in her 30s. She continues to learn how to communicate differently, because of aphasia. 

Aphasia makes it hard for Cheryl to use words. It affects her speech, but she can still write the words. 

"In general, people with aphasia know what they want to say, but it's just getting the words from here out their mouth is what's very hard," explains Cathleen Swallows, a Speech-Language Pathologist at HARC. "Something important that we want everyone to know, aphasia doesn't cause any changes with someone's intelligence." 


Cheryl says it meant a lot to her to go to HARC, where everyone there understands that intelligence isn’t affected. She's brilliant! In fact, Cheryl was about to achieve her Ph.D. when she had her stroke.

She lives with her loving mom, Louise Adamson, who sat down with us to go over what happened. 

"She had the stroke, fell on the floor, laid there for almost 17 hours," she explained. "Her friend found her, called police, and that’s when they found her on the floor." 

Cheryl had to spend months in an England hospital, before transferring back to Houston for therapy. Her stroke severely damaged the part of her brain that involves language. 

While strokes are the leading cause of aphasia, any traumatic brain injury and several brain diseases can also spur the condition. 

"I won't tell anyone that it's easy. Cheryl and I have a system that we have worked with over the years," says Louise. 

They've gotten a lot of ideas at the non-profit Houston Aphasia Recovery Center, or HARC. 

"We offer a community that really supports not only aphasia, but also the family members, and education for neurologists and speech pathologists and the entire Houston Community," states Eleni Christou-Franklin, the Executive Director of HARC. 

This long-term care center makes a huge difference in their lives. 

"When somebody first is faced with something like a stroke, they are often broken, and they're devastated," says Eleni. "They've lost their ability to communicate not only with their family but their workplace, their community around them. So, the first day they come, they can be really down, but as soon as they walk into that community and see people like them, they're uplifted."

Cheryl comes to this safe haven several times every week. It has helped her mom a lot too, and she shares advice to anyone else going through this.  

"Take them and listen to them," Louise said. "They're people too and they're the same people." 

She adds that Cheryl lost a lot of friends because of aphasia but certainly gained new ones through HARC. 

Music therapy has also helped Cheryl, as it's a huge part of recovering from aphasia, as well as learning to live with it. 

Another patient we spoke to, Tom Pickett also seeks help through HARC. After his stroke, HARC has helped him learn to communicate again and that's a big relief for him. And like Cheryl, he adores music therapy. 

"I like the music," Tom states, with a big smile. 

Speech pathologists, like Cathleen Swallows, say music can really help patients with their aphasia.

"Music makes a big difference because it engages different parts of the brain that are not usually affected by aphasia," she explained. "So aphasia is an injury to the left side of your brain, where your language centers are, music engages core areas of your brain, some in the right hemisphere and some different areas. 

"Sometimes, people with aphasia can sing a lot better than what they can usually speak so that can make a huge difference in someone's confidence, I think for someone with aphasia to be able to sing some of their favorite songs, but also it brings an emotional and sentimental value to being here at HARC and to be able to participate in all of that together," Cathleen continued. "I just see everyone's face light up every day."


She also believes speech therapy in group sessions is helpful.  

"To feel comfortable with each other, by doing that, you're bringing in a functional group where people can just practice having a conversation and that can lead to more confidence outside of here - and feeling like -'I have aphasia, but I can have meaningful communication with my friends, family, and community," explains Cathleen. 

Meanwhile, Tom is thankful he can communicate better now. For several days after his stroke, he could perfectly hear and understand everyone around him, yet could not utter one word. 

"I'm trapped. And I'm looking around family or friends and I don't speak," explains Tom. 


Therapy has made a world of difference for him and music tops the list. 

"I can understand the words of the music," concluded Tom. 

Then he sang part of a song for us, sharing his beautiful voice while being the voice for others with aphasia so that we can all better understand what they're going through. 

To learn more, about the Houston Aphasia Recovery Center, visit their website.