Imagine having complete thoughts formulated in your mind, but not being able to fully express yourself because you cannot think of the words.
This is known as aphasia. It is a communication disorder that results from damage to the parts of the brain that control motor centers and language abilities. Side effects include difficulty speaking, listening, reading and writing – but intelligence is one area that is not affected. Aphasia, most commonly caused by stroke, affects approximately one million individuals in the U.S. according to the National Institute on Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
The Department of Communicative Disorders and Deaf Studies at Fresno State strives to provide a safe place for aphasia patients with their weekly aphasia support groups. It is a place where all members can feel okay to express themselves, regardless of communication impairments.
“It doesn’t matter if the words come out wrong,” said Dr. Don Freed, director of the aphasia group and professor of speech-language pathology. “Everyone is in the same boat. The therapy sessions allow clients to interact with their peers and form friendships. It’s where they realize that there are others out there who are dealing with the same thing.”
There are two groups that meet once a week, with clients paying just $35 a semester. Many insurance providers do not provide assistance or aphasia therapy groups, so having this one in the Central Valley is important, said Freed. It is one of the very few aphasia therapy groups offered in the Central Valley. Clients are referred through word of mouth and even from former students working in the field.
Graduate students in the speech-language pathology program run these groups under the supervision of Freed who has been involved with the aphasia group since 1997. The group initially began 18 years ago with the purpose of giving graduate students majoring in speech pathology a chance to learn and have exposure to stroke patients.
“The group was only meant to last one semester, but it went so well and there were so many clients with so much of this need that it was expanded to two groups 12 years ago,” said Freed.
The two groups are divided among clients who possess severe aphasia and those who have a more mild form of aphasia. A total of five students run the two groups. Not only do these groups provide support to clients, but it provides a fantastic learning experience for students who plan to work with stroke patients and/or go into the medical field.
Tricia Stone, a 2nd year graduate student from Hanford, was involved in the group in the fall of 2014 and said it aligned with her future career goals of one day creating an aphasia group in Kings County.
“I have come to learn that groups, such as the Fresno State weekly aphasia group, are a limited service in the Valley,” said Stone.” Expanding services to neighboring communities would be a welcome addition for those with aphasia who currently lack this opportunity. There are clients in the aphasia group that have been a member for almost a decade. That speaks volumes about the interest and the importance the group sessions in the client’s perspective.”
Freed said his philosophy is to let his students have the freedom to develop their own clinical style. “So much of clinical learning is controlled with a lot of input from supervisors which can get a bit overwhelming. This program allows students the chance to figure out problems and gauge situations and problem solve. It’s a way to let them spread their wings and fly, learning through trial and error. “
To effectively run the groups, students need to be able to think on their feet and facilitate fun and challenging activities that help the clients express themselves verbally, in order to get the clients’ cognitive abilities going. Stone described her sessions as interactive.
“One session we played ‘Guess the Song’ where I would play a 30 second snippet of a song, and each group member would come up with the name of the song,” said Stone. “Many times this game turned into a sing-along session. Picture seven clients with aphasia who have difficulty speaking or understanding language, but are suddenly transformed into fluent singers when the song ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ is played. They all knew the lyrics and sang fluently and happily; even the clinicians chimed in. It’s a beautiful thing to experience, and even more beautiful to take part in.”
Students receive one unit of credit and earn clinical hours that go towards their required 400 hours needed for national certification. Because of the popularity of the aphasia group, students are only able to participate in one semester with the aphasia group, which makes room for many other students to also get involved.
Freed said the clients, who range from their 30s to late 80s, enjoy their weekly visit. Some clients with chronic aphasia have even been coming to the therapy group consistently for the past 12 to 13 years.
“I often hear how much the patients love working with our students,” Freed said. “One of the clients even proclaimed the therapy session as the funnest time of his week. Support from the students is just as important to them as support from their peers. It’s so great to see our students run this program and develop professionally over time.”
The level of admiration is shared by Stone, who said her semester clinical working with the aphasia group was “one of the best experiences of my on-campus clinical practicum.”
The first session of the spring semester of the aphasia group began February 4 and will continue throughout the semester. For more information on the aphasia support group, please contact Dr. Don Freed at firstname.lastname@example.org.