At age 35, Laurie Van Dyke suffered a stroke that damaged the left side of her brain and left her with a communication disorder known as aphasia.
Aphasia, an impairment of the ability to use or comprehend words, is usually acquired as the result of a stroke or brain injury, according to Karen Copeland, speech-language pathologist and lecturer in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Oklahoma State University – Tulsa, who is leading the first Cowboy Aphasia Camp at OSU-Tulsa this week.
Aphasia affects more than 1 million Americans and is more common than Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy, according to the National Aphasia Association. More than 100,000 Americans acquire the disorder each year.
“There’s no cure for aphasia, but people do improve and you do learn how to live with it successfully,” said Copeland. “The type of aphasia varies from person to person and can range from mild to severe. In all cases though, the person with aphasia experiences difficulty speaking with and understanding other people.”
Van Dyke’s family had already been struck by tragedy six years earlier when her husband, a veteran of the Iraq war, suffered a stroke that resulted in having part of his brain removed. With three children under the age of 10, Van Dyke dedicated herself to recovering so that one day she can read bedtime stories to them again.
“Laurie is very determined, she may not be able to tell you exactly what she wants, but she’ll be able to communicate it you in different ways,” said Lisa Standlee, Van Dyke’s sister. “Attending the camp this week has given her a lot of new computer programs to try and it’s really bumped up her self-esteem. It’s been a great camp.”
The Cowboy Aphasia Camp pairs people with aphasia with graduate clinicians studying communication disorders for one-on-one therapy sessions. These sessions are devoted to working on specific communication skills and utilize flash cards, computer software, iPad apps and word games.
“The goal is to stimulate language abilities and offer ideas on how to continue the work at home,” said Copeland. “This also provides invaluable experience for our students because this is the first time that they have had the opportunity to work with people with aphasia.”
The program also includes other activities that stimulate the mind and body, including yoga and workout sessions, painting and arts sessions, and working with therapeutic animals. The group will also watch the movie “Aphasia” staring Carl McIntyre, an actor who acquired aphasia at age 44 after suffering a stroke.
The initial group of campers range in age from mid-30s to late-70s. Copeland says that she hopes to expand the program and offer additional camps for people with aphasia in the future.
Standlee said the camp is a great experience for her sister because it gives her extra time to work on communication skills.
“Laurie normally does out-patient therapy for about an hour each day,” said Standlee. “Having an all-day camp for a week gives her the opportunity to spend more time working on specific skills and has introduced some new activities that she’s really excited about doing again. Every day when we get here, she’s pumped about what we’re doing.”
Nearly two years after the stroke, Van Dyke is learning new ways of communicating with her sister and other family members. Her positive attitude and determination are an inspiration to Standlee, who spends time with her sister every day.
“Laurie and her family live independently, and we have family come by every day to help with things,” said Standlee. “She still washes the dishes, folds the laundry, makes her kids lunches every day, all of the things she did before the stroke. She just does them a little differently.”
To learn more about aphasia, visit the website for the National Aphasia Association at www.aphasia.org or contact Karen Copeland at 918-744-3524.