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

    • Charlie’s Story: Epilepsy

      Charlie's Story: EpilepsyBy Charlie Shor I have had many adventures in my 57 years, and I have accomplished much. But the main message of my story, which I have been given the opportunity to share, is that anything is possible. If you have...
    • Brian’s Story: Meningioma

      Brian's Story: Meningioma “Carefree” is the word Brian uses to describe his life back then. He was 39 years old, happily married and the father of three children under the age of 5. “Life was busy, but that felt normal,” he says, reflecting. “The only...
    • 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...
    • Charles Sabine’s Story: Huntington’s Disease

      Charles Sabine's Story: Huntington's DiseaseIn 2005 the NBC war correspondent Charles Sabine made the life-altering decision to face up to his family history of Huntington’s disease and undergo genetic testing. The odds, he knew, were 50-50 that he, too, had the gene and would...
    • Deanna’s Story: Conquering Seizures

      Deanna's Story: Conquering SeizuresDeanna was averaging three seizures a week when she arrived at the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute. Sometimes her seizures caused her to pass out, and sometimes they left her blinking and wondering where the time had gone. Complicating her situation,...
    • Janis’s Story: Levodopa Pump for Parkinson’s Disease

      Janis's Story: Levodopa Pump for Parkinson's Disease When Janis Yelton gratefully enrolled in a ground-breaking study at the University of Cincinnati Gardner Neuroscience Institute, she was wracked by pain from advanced Parkinson’s disease, taking 32 pills a day, and no longer able to work. Years later, Janis still...
    • Christine’s Story: Stroke

      Christine's Story: StrokeThere was a sliver of a chance, maybe, and most likely the emergency room doctor thought there was no chance at all. Christine had arrived at the community hospital comatose, brought by her parents, who had come home after working...
    • Paula’s Story: Clot-Retriever Success

      Paula's Story: Clot-Retriever Success No one ever wants to suffer a stroke. But when Paula suffered a major, life-threatening stroke in September 2013 while working at a local deli, one might say that her timing was perfect. First and foremost, Paula got to the University...
    • Amy’s Story: A Battle With MS

      Amy's Story: A Battle With MSIn retrospect, multiple sclerosis had probably been stalking Amy for a long time. She had suffered from chronic headaches in high school, and her seasonal allergies had been over the top. Then, in her mid-30s, the busy wife and mother...
    • 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...