Memorial Day 2016 started just like any other day. David Van Zant went through his morning routine of making coffee and opening the newspaper at his home in Egg Harbor Township.
But then the words on the page morphed into unrecognizable shapes and figures. Van Zant re-alized, suddenly, he couldn’t read.
A skill he had learned in grade school more than 70 years ago was gone after Van Zant suffered a stroke. It wasn’t until weeks later that he and his wife, Ruth, were able to put a name to the chronic condition he now lives with: aphasia.
One-third of strokes result in aphasia, a language disorder caused by brain damage that leaves someone without the ability to understand or express speech, and it often is misunderstood and goes undiagnosed, experts said.
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The National Aphasia Association estimates about 2 million people live with aphasia, and a serious lack of awareness and education may make it difficult for people to get the right treatment, advocates say.
“They (health care experts) never used the word, they just said I would probably never again be able to do this or that,” Van Zant said, sitting at his kitchen table on a recent Monday morning. “I’ll always be different, but people need to understand what it is.”
Not everyone suffers from aphasia in the same way. Some people have difficulty speaking years after a stroke or brain damage, others may not be able to read or write. Some may have difficulty with all three.
While Van Zant’s vocabulary was reduced to few words and his ability to read was wiped out immediately following his stroke and care at AtlantiCare, he was able to relearn and regain nearly all of those skills after two years of rehabilitation and therapy.
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Ruth said it was scary, watching her husband be physically fine but knowing he couldn’t remember her name or communicate exactly what he wanted to say for the longest time.
“Everyone is different. My friends don’t know or have forgotten that I even have a problem,” he said. “And the biggest thing about aphasia is that when people don’t know the words to communicate, people think they’re stupid, but it doesn’t affect intelligence at all.”
Van Zant, who had a career as an engineer before retiring, points out statistics and information on brochures and flyers spread out on his kitchen table about the Aphasia Communication Group, a therapy and support group that meets twice a month at Stockton University’s Hammonton campus.
The group, which was created by the Adler Aphasia Center and brought to Hammonton in 2016, has recently gained more notice among people looking for help managing their aphasia.
The center partners with Stockton University and includes speech-pathology students in the therapy.
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Gretchen Szabo, program director and speech language pathologist, said when she tells people about her work with aphasia residents, they often put a name to the difficulties that an uncle, grandmother, parent or sibling has been living with.
“They never before made the connection to aphasia,” she said. “Without a name, it’s hard to find resources and advocate for it. Because it isn’t so well known, folks get isolated. Friends don’t understand the issues and that there are strategies to help. Those people can then fade away over time.”
To better identify residents suffering with aphasia and locate resources available to those people, the state created the Mike Adler Aphasia Task Force last year. The task force is responsible for ensuring support, resources and services to individuals and families managing aphasia.
Van Zant recently became a volunteer member with those state efforts. Although his condition now is considered mild, Van Zant said he continues to go to the communication group to help others and show there’s always room for improvement.
“It really helps to have a social group where you can talk and practice the skills you’ve learned,” he said. “If one person has trouble, everyone jumps in to help them. The issues we deal with at our aphasia group is to try and help people get along better in the world.”
Contact: 609-272-7022 NLeonard@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressNLeonard