The power of one

“How I regained my speech after suffering a stroke.” – Liesl Mocke, 44, Cape Town

The 7th of July 2002 was the last day of my life as I knew it. I was 36-years old; a psychologist, a mother and a wife. I had been living in London for two and a half years working for the Red Cross in an administrative position, whilst waiting to be registered as a Psychologist with the British Psychological Society, as I had practised in Pretoria before moving overseas. I could speak six languages – English, Afrikaans, Hebrew, Greek, Xhosa and German – and was successful in my career, and specialised in helping school pupils suffering from dyslexia and other learning difficulties. 

After experiencing a severe migraine one Wednesday morning, and then daily until the Sunday afternoon, I collapsed and was found paralysed and unable to speak on the bed, by my husband, Daniel. I had been lying there for about one and a half hours after going to lie down. I had suffered a rare type of stroke, where an artery in my neck had ruptured – the same artery that carried blood to my brain. 

Suddenly, I could no longer do what I had so often taken for granted; I couldn’t swallow, I couldn’t move the right hand side of my body, I could not read or produce any sound. I was numb, emotionless and in a state of emptiness. My first step was to get out of bed and walk around the hospital. With the help of a physiotherapist, this took me a few weeks to accomplish. Then I had to learn how to produce sound. On the 22nd day after the stroke, a speech therapist spent an hour with me in hospital, showing me how to press my lips together and then to release them, after which I eventually could say a short ‘mah’, with a little voice. I was shown how to touch my throat over the larynx, while breathing out simultaneously with a push of the breath, to make a sound. It was very difficult and extremely exhausting, and all I wanted to do was sleep, which is not uncommon for stroke patients. 

After more practice, I could eventually say my first word; mamma. However, I still felt devoid of emotion and did not even know what ‘mamma’ meant. This was when my mother, Mari Mocke, a speech and drama teacher took over with teaching me to speak, practically from scratch, as I only spent two sessions with the speech therapist at the hospital. She began coaching me to speak and write again in English and Afrikaans, immediately after my discharge. 

It was not easy-going. I had absolutely no words in my mind, only pictures. For instance, I could picture a fork and a knife and know their function, but I had no idea what they were called. Only after practising with my mother to articulate every speech sound with the tongue and the lips and the outgoing breath, was I able to learn the names of things as she showed them to me, and named them. With the aid of a hand mirror I had to learn to press the tip of my tongue against the palate of my mouth, behind the teeth, to get it into the right position for articulating, for example, the letter ‘n’, before I could eventually say the word ‘knife’.

I practised every morning and afternoon, at first for about ten minutes, then about twenty minutes at a time during the first week at home. Fatigue was the greatest problem, not frustration, because I had very little emotion. Sometimes I was actually too tired for the practices, but then I forced myself to do it, because I wanted to speak.

Once I had mastered the ability to utter a speech sound, I learnt to identify and say ‘pappa’, Daniel (my husband) and Johan, my son’s name. With my mother, I practised saying short sentences, the first of which was, ‘Johan likes juice’. 

Eventually, six months after my stroke, I was able to speak full sentences more spontaneously, but sometimes, naming common objects lodged my mind, was difficult. I still experience this challenge, where the name for an image or object gets lost in my mind. I find that a helpful way of getting around this is to use hand gestures, while describing the object. Some days are better than others. 

About a year after the stroke, I used to draw the pictures of the items on my shopping list, if I could not bring the word to the fore! 

Roughly three years after the stroke, my emotional seat started functioning again. Then, besides working closely with my mother, I went for intensive therapy to help me express the anger and frustration I felt about my situation, but had been unable to communicate verbally as I used to, before the stroke. Especially abstract thoughts. This was hard for me as just three years previously; I had been the one sitting in the psychologist’s chair, helping people overcome their challenges. Now I needed the help.  

I used to define myself by what I did, now, free of those constraints, I do what I love – baking, gardening, singing and making bath-salts and soaps. I also love reading and helping my nine-year old son with his homework, which brings me great joy. I live life fully, because I have much to be thankful for. My husband, Daniel is the rock in my life and he has been supportive throughout.

I now understand what a gift communication is – and every day I make progress. I am Liesl, I have a speech difficulty, but I am not the speech difficulty. I have talents and abilities that are unique to me, but they do not make me who I am as a soul or a spirit. We are all so much more than that.

Author: Charlene Yared-West, The Oprah Magazine, August 2010. (Please note that the copy posted above is the unedited version of what was published in the magazine and will differ slightly. To read the edited version of the article, please click on the images for an expanded view.)

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