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Lawyer faces personal trial when stroke leaves him unable to speak

U of T event sheds light on common but misunderstood consequences of stroke

By Tijana Simic
CPSR trainee and Ph.D. candidate
University of Toronto

Harvey Strosberg, a successful trial lawyer, was 66 years old when a top neurological team brought him, in his words, “back from the brink of oblivion” after a stroke.

When he awoke, Mr. Strosberg, a man known for his impeccable use of words, “couldn’t speak. Not a word. I was mute.” He recently shared his experience with 85 people at a public event at the University of Toronto to raise awareness about speech and swallowing disorders after stroke.

The event was hosted by U of T’s Department of Speech-Language Pathology and the Ontario Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists (OSLA) as part of Speech and Hearing Month.

“In a blink of a stroke, I passed into a different realm,” Mr. Strosberg says. “I went from powerful to powerless.”

Aphasia, an inability to communicate, silently affects as many as 38 per cent of people who have a stroke.

Despite the staggering number of people who live with this challenging condition, there is limited awareness, according to U of T’s Dr. Elizabeth Rochon, a Heart and Stroke Foundation Canadian Partnership for Stroke Recovery-funded researcher.

A survey, led by Dr. Rochon and colleagues, “found that although most people reported that they had heard of stroke, only 32% of respondents said that they had heard of aphasia …  and only 6% of the entire sample had even basic knowledge of what aphasia is.” She said there is a great deal of work to be done to raise awareness of aphasia in society.

For Mr. Strosberg and his family, this outcome of his stroke was a shock. “I could write my name, but nothing else. I had a four-word vocabulary: ‘wow’, ‘consequences’, ‘Paul’ and ‘Franklin’,” he says. “I soon realized that I had a serious problem: I couldn’t remember the English language.”

Mr. Strosberg also had trouble swallowing, a condition called dysphagia, another common outcome of stroke. “[My doctor] told me there was no facility to test for difficulties in swallowing until Tuesday.  I was deprived of water for at least 4 further days.  Truly I was crazy for water.  I couldn’t say, ‘Please give me some water.’  I couldn’t beg for water.”

U of T’s Dr. Rosemary Martino said, thanks to leadership of the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Canada was one of the first countries to develop guidelines to screen people for dysphagia. “We as Canadians have become global leaders in detecting swallowing difficulties early and reducing the complications of pneumonia after stroke. This is a Canadian success story.”

While Mr. Strosberg says “the road to recovery is never ever ever ending”, he has learned a great deal from his stroke.

“Everyone thinks if you’ve had a stroke you’re not as good as you were before,” he says. “I don’t know if they’re right or if they’re wrong. I’m a better lawyer tactically and introspectively than I was before my stroke . .. “I’m bound and determined to be a better person and better speaker.”

June is Stroke Month in Canada.

Learn more by visiting www.slp.utoronto.ca

Pictured in photo above: From left, Dr. Rosemary Martino, Mr. Harvey Strosberg, Dr. Elizabeth Rochon 

 

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