Zettie’s Story: Aphasia


In November of 2004, Zettie Williams confronted what neurologists consider one of the most feared consequences of stroke. When a therapist showed her a photograph of her son, she knew she was looking at her son, but she couldn’t say his name.

Ms. Williams was suffering from aphasia, a language impairment that makes communication difficult. The stroke, which was caused by a blood clot, decreased the oxygen-rich blood supply to the left side of Ms. Williams’s brain. Brain cells (neurons) in an “eloquent” area that was responsible for speech and movement died as a result, leaving Ms. Williams temporarily unable to talk or walk.

In the seven years since, however, something remarkable has happened. Highly motivated, supported by faith, family and friends, and propelled by the opportunities provided by stroke researchers affiliated with the UC Neuroscience Institute, Ms. Williams has made a comeback. Although her words are not always crystal-clear and her right arm is limp, she is a picture of animation. Her communication is effective and intentional, and last year she earned her high school diploma. She lives independently in a small, comfortable apartment that she keeps spotlessly clean with determination, pride and her one good arm.

“After my stroke I didn’t know my name. I didn’t know how to spell my name,” Ms. Williams reflects. “I’m doing this good because I’ve been doing studies for seven years.”

Jerzy Szaflarski, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Neurology at UC, sees in Ms. Williams the potential for stroke survivors to enhance their recovery if appropriate therapy can be provided. He and other researchers are working to determine what form that therapy should take and how long it should be administered.

“There are therapies that effect long-term plasticity in the brain, that create new connections in the brain and therefore potentially can have long-lasting effects on aphasia,” Dr. Szaflarski says. “As a result, these patients may get better and, thus, return to the society and participate in the society. If their aphasia is especially bad, they can’t participate in the society. That’s why it’s so important to find better ways to help.”

Dr. Szaflarski cautions that not everyone who experiences a stroke is a candidate for participation in these studies, will derive benefits similar to those derived by Ms. Williams, or will receive all the trial therapies Ms. Williams was able to receive.

Ms. Williams, who was a smoker with high blood pressure and high cholesterol prior to her stroke, says she was in her third week of hospitalization when her health insurance ran out. At that time, a UC researcher told her about studies at UC that explored how various activities might help stroke survivors improve or regain their language or motor skills. Ms. Williams enrolled in a study and never stopped.

Today she raves about the studies involving functional MRI. While she puzzled over words or sounds, pressing a blue button or a yellow, depending on the answer, a 3-tesla MRI machine took pictures of her brain in action. Afterward, she was asked to remember some of the words she had heard. “They were nouns – bed, telephone, bird, window,” Ms. Williams says with assurance. “I never missed one.”

Most recently, she spent 3½ a hours a day for two weeks engaged in a game reminiscent of “Go Fish.” During the game, Ms. Williams and two others held a handful of cards and took turns asking each other whether they had a specific picture on one of their cards. “They made us ask for the picture, and we had to make a sentence,” she explains.

Recovery continues daily at home, where Ms. Williams plays solitaire on her computer, solves word puzzles in a large workbook, and works with an aide, “who makes me use my brain when it comes to counting my money and pronouncing words correctly.” One neighbor leaves notes on her door so that she can practice her reading every day, and another walks with her through the spacious parking lot outside her apartment. A grateful survivor, Ms. Williams has begun volunteering at a local hospital.

“All because of UC and the MRI, I got my memories back,” she says. “Doing the MRI studies gave me the courage to make me want to help people like me.”

— Cindy Starr

* * *

Hope Story Disclaimer – This story describes an individual patient’s experience. Because every person is unique, individual patients may respond to treatment in different ways. Outcomes are influenced by many factors and may vary from patient to patient.

This entry was posted in Hope Stories and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Print This Page
  • Make an Appointment: Schedule Now
  • Sign up for our newsletter!
  • UCNI Weekly Blog
  • Hope Stories

    • Frank’s Story: Parkinson’s Disease

      Frank's Story: Parkinson's DiseaseSome people have vacation homes. Frank has the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute. This is where he comes for comprehensive, compassionate medical care for Parkinson’s disease, which he has lived with for 15 years. “They make us feel safe,” says Frank’s wife,...
    • Zettie’s Story: Aphasia

      Zettie's Story: Aphasia In November of 2004, Zettie Williams confronted what neurologists consider one of the most feared consequences of stroke. When a therapist showed her a photograph of her son, she knew she was looking at her son, but she couldn’t say...
    • Alicia’s Story: Multiple Sclerosis

      Alicia’s Story: Multiple SclerosisAlicia is relishing a life that is filled to the brim: she is a wife, a mother, a runner and a master at living with multiple sclerosis. Diagnosed in the late 1990s, Alicia had “a bumpy ride” in the beginning. But...
    • Dale’s Hope Story: Parkinson’s

      Dale's Hope Story: Parkinson's [hana-flv-player video="/wp-content/videos/Dale_Ankeman_Sunflower_3.flv" width="500" height="377" description="" player="2" autoload="true" autoplay="false" loop="false" autorewind="true" /] After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2003, 46-year-old Dale Ankenman was determined not to let it keep him off his bike. Considering his long list of credentials, including former...
    • Scott’s Story: The Epilepsy Ambassador

      Scott's Story: The Epilepsy AmbassadorScott was working his dream job as a commercial airline pilot 10 years ago when his life was forever changed by epilepsy. After coming home from a long run, he complained of nausea and then collapsed with a grand mal...
    • Doug’s Story: Stroke Survivor

      Doug's Story: Stroke SurvivorIt was a weekday evening like any other when a friendly customer service representative named Doug became the ultimate customer. His need? Stroke services, A to Z. Doug, a self-described overweight former smoker with high blood pressure and diabetes, was trying...
    • Amber’s Story: Ruptured Aneurysm

      Amber's Story: Ruptured Aneurysm The only visible sign of Amber Gray’s ordeal is the long slender scar that runs along her forearm. It is the area where a surgeon carefully removed her radial artery, which was needed to bypass a damaged artery in her...
    • Rick’s Story: After 45 Years, He Got the Help He Needed

      Rick's Story: After 45 Years, He Got the Help He Needed Rick’s strategy for managing his epilepsy wasn’t perfect, but it had worked well enough for most of his career as a theme park project manager who traveled the world. Whether he worked in Australia, Malaysia, Singapore or Germany, his routine...
    • Dick’s Story: Ischemic Stroke

      Dick's Story: Ischemic Stroke As a firefighter who attends regular EMS drills, Dick Koeniger was well versed in the signs and symptoms of stroke. While driving home with a friend one evening last June, he suddenly noticed that his peripheral vision was slightly impaired....
    • Mary Ann’s Story: Cervical Dystonia

      Mary Ann’s Story: Cervical Dystonia Mary Ann, a registered nurse, was the first to notice that her head was tilting ever so slightly to the left. She was able to ignore it for a while, but over time the tilt became more obvious and disfiguring....