My Turn: How I Recovered From a Stroke

"I cannot speak!" Those were the last words I uttered. And just like that, I lost my ability to communicate in any shape or form.

It was Aug. 19, 2006—my 10th wedding anniversary. I was playing with my 3-year-old son in the living room, helping him solve a puzzle, when I felt something go wrong inside my brain, something terribly wrong. To this day, I cannot explain what it was I was feeling, only that it was something like a panic attack. I stood up and ran to the bedroom where my husband was sleeping, holding my hands around my head in a silent scream. He jumped up as soon as he saw the expression on my face and tried to calm me down. My husband was a physician by training and after a quick examination, he could see that something was wrong with my nervous system--I could smile with only half my mouth, for example, and my tongue skewed to the right. But I was 39 years old, 115 pounds and in good health. I didn't think it could be too serious, but nonetheless, we drove to the nearest hospital.

As soon as we entered the emergency room it all began: CAT scans, MRIs, electrodes everywhere on my body, doctors and nurses speaking jargon. In the end it became clear that I had had a stroke. The right side of my face was paralyzed. Worst of all, my left carotid artery was blocked forever and the Broca's area of the brain, more commonly known as the speaking center, was dead. When I say "speaking," I mean communication in any form: writing, drawing, body language, gestures—in short any means of expressing oneself.

The name of my newly acquired condition was expressive aphasia. Imagine a situation where you desperately want to say something but you simply don't know how. You cannot even make a gesture to say "yes" or "no." That is what it is like to have this condition.

There are approximately 5,700,000 stroke survivors in the United States. It is the third leading cause of death after heart disease and all forms cancer combined, and it is the leading cause of long-term disability. Among survivors, one in six develops aphasia. Although one's intellect and judgment remain intact when you have aphasia, nobody knows about it, because friends and relatives focus on the more manifest symptoms of stroke, like paralysis.

When I was discharged from the hospital, the doctors thought I would not speak again. As far as communication was concerned, I was back to square one, as helpless as a newborn baby. I had to relearn everything: I had to navigate through the fog in my brain to find the right words that go together with the right concepts. I had to think of the right sounds to form those words, and finally I had to command my muscles in and around my mouth to produce those sounds.

Who knew that the greatest challenge of my life would turn out to be the greatest blessing?
I could say that I rose to the challenge, grabbed it by the horns, and by sheer determination, I conquered my disability in a Rambo-like manner. But this is not how it happened. It took much more than that. It took, first of all, lots of love—love my husband showed when he gently held my hands, looked at me with a tender yet determined heart and said: "No matter what happens, I will always take care of you"; love from my family that brought them immediately to my side from 10,000 miles away in Turkey, and made them take turns being with us for a whole year; love from friends near and far, as they put their prayers behind a thousand origami cranes that hung on the ceiling of our bedroom, as they came to teach me how to speak again.

It also took letting go of my past life and learning to accept a new world.  I let go of the ego that proudly stood between me and people who wanted to help me. I became open to receiving that help and let go of the notion of "I know best" in exchange for listening to people I trusted.

I learned to take each day one by one. I began to see the best in people and treated them as if it was the last time I would see them. I hope that anyone who has had an experience like mine is transformed by this knowledge. Each and every day we wake up we receive a gift, the most precious gift of all: another day to live. It is not to be taken for granted.
With the help of my exceptional therapists, I improved week by week, and I'm still improving. I can write, draw and do math again. I even started a blog, expressiveaphasia.blogspot.com, where I chronicled my story day by day.

As of now, I can speak well, although I'm still a bit slow and clumsy. I have all of my vocabulary back—both my English vocabulary and my native Turkish. Most of my paralysis has been resolved, but part of my face remains weak. People think that I have a thick accent. They often ask me what the country of my origin is. I want to tell them "I come from a country called Aphasia."