SARASOTA, Fla. (May 10, 2017) – USF Sarasota-Manatee students Michaela Pomeroy and Caitlin Farnsworth are learning lessons not found in textbooks.
The students are enrolled in USFSM’s Communication Sciences & Disorders (CSD) program. Along with their instructor, Dr. Donna Polelle, they visited Doctor’s Hospital of Sarasota once a month during the spring semester to attend meetings of the Suncoast Aphasia Support Group.
Comprised of 15 adults and their spouses, the group sips coffee, catches up on the latest news and engages in conversation and other activities to help adults with aphasia communicate their thoughts. Aphasia is an acquired loss of language due to stroke or traumatic brain injury.
The 90-minute sessions are inviting and frequently punctuated by laughter as the couples are urged to engage in light-hearted communication-focused activities. Even the students played a role, working with unaccompanied adults.
At one recent meeting, the focus turned toward wordplay exercises designed to awaken memories of words and phrases not routinely spoken but nevertheless found in everyday language, such as “ballroom” or “snowshoe.”
Sometimes the students offered a prompt – a word or sketch on a scrap of paper – to elicit a thought to jumpstart the process of recalling words. Other times they mouthed the first syllable in an exaggerated fashion to help the person start the word.
Dr. Polelle, who has worked with the support group for four years, said the exercises stimulate the language areas of the brain, which not only aid in the recovery of persons with aphasia but provide caregivers, including the students, lessons in speech-language therapy, patience and the healing quality of personal interaction.
“Going through the program and working with the people in the classes, I can definitely see where it requires a compassionate person to do this work and to be effective in it,” Pomeroy, 26, a senior, said.
Dr. Polelle said she brings the students to the meetings to help them understand the breadth and intricacies of the CSD profession while allowing them to “test the waters” as they discern their careers. Speech-language pathologists focused on aphasia can find themselves in variety of workplaces: clinical settings, private practice, hospitals, nursing homes and community-based aphasia centers.
Aphasia most commonly occurs after stroke but may also be caused by traumatic brain injury such as from car accidents or falls. It results from damage to the parts of the brain that contain language, typically on the left side, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
Although aphasia can cause difficulties in speaking, listening, reading and writing, it doesn’t affect intelligence. Persons with aphasia know what they want to say, but cannot express it.
For example, while engaging in conversations the flow of words might suddenly stop as the person struggles to find the right word. The support group’s exercises, which continue at home between the spouses, are designed to break through those roadblocks and provide communication strategies and insights.
Sometimes the exercises elicit hearty laughs. At one recent meeting, organizer Erika Boyle introduced a wordplay challenge designed to elicit words that accompany snow, such as “snow storm.” When she uttered the clue “blizzard,” one elderly man replied, “What was that? I thought you said, lizard,” prompting laughs all around.
Throughout the session, the students showed no shyness about jumping in and helping. As the adults, for example, tried to think up words to go with “ball,” the students wrote hints on slips of paper, such as “Arthur Murray,” and “dancing” to help them identify the correct response, “ballroom.”
In another exercise, Farnsworth helped a man say “speech therapy” by asking about the therapy he was engaged in at that moment. Finally, she wrote, “What kind of therapy?” on a folded sheet of paper, to which the man replied, “speech therapy,” causing him to beam with pride.
Dr. Polelle encouraged the students to engage with the support group to help them understand how the loss of communication affects persons with aphasia and their family members. In addition to the monthly meetings, Pomeroy and Farnsworth assisted Dr. Jan Bisset and Dr. Polelle at a reading room for the support group’s members.
The Suncoast Aphasia Support Group meets the first Monday of the month. It celebrated its 10th anniversary in March.
“Its founders, Diane and Bob Lombard and Erika and Tom Boyle, identified an unmet community need for persons with aphasia and co-survivors,” Dr. Polelle said. “The group provides an important social, emotional and educational role as participants return to an active and satisfying life. It is a privilege to be a member of our local aphasia community, to be a resource for their communication needs, and provide our students the opportunity to learn directly from those impacted by aphasia.”
Pomeroy said she was always interested in working with children, but after the support group sessions she now says she could envision herself working with adults.
“Just the fact that it’s really specialized, working with language, is interesting to me,” she said. “I lived in France for a year and I remember at first that it was really difficult to express myself. That got me thinking about speech therapy.”
Farnsworth, a former elementary school teacher, said she likes the personal interaction provided by speech-language pathology.
“It’s still a form of education, which I enjoy, but it’s more one-on-one,” she said. “For me, this really is about learning how to educate people with aphasia, working through the obstacles to find the right words.”
To learn more about USFSM’s Communication Sciences & Disorders Program, visit usfsm.edu/programs/communication-sciences-disorders-2/.