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Giffords speech therapist, Arlington resident hopes to raise awareness of disorder

Posted by Your Town  January 30, 2012 02:30 PM

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Politicians and people of all political persuasions cheered the return of former US Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona at last week’s State of the Union address, especially one Arlington resident who helped her get there.

Marjorie Nicholas, an associate professor at the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions in Charlestown, spent two weeks in October assisting Giffords as she recovered from a 2011 shooting.

“We worked on speaking, comprehension actives, reading actives, writing,” Nicholas said in a phone interview, describing what she called an “intensive therapy program” that lasted from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Nicholas, along with Nancy Helm-Estabrooks, a professor in the department of communication sciences and disorders at Western Carolina University, were working to help Giffords regain language skills she lost after the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting that left six people dead and 13 wounded.

Nicholas, who is an expert in adult neurogenic communication disorders, and director of the MGH Institute’s Aphasia Center, said Giffords suffers from aphasia, a disorder that causes difficulty with language.

The condition is generally caused by a head trauma, such as a shooting or a stroke, but Nicholas said not many people know about or understand the disorder.

“I think awareness of aphasia as a disorder is not nearly where it should be,” Nicholas said.

“It’s a loss of language, not intellect,” said Nicholas, adding that people suffering from aphasia face “a double whammy” because they often cannot explain their disorder to others.

Giffords has received more rehabilitation and treatment than most others, said Nicholas, pointing to differences in health insurance and the varying needs of individuals.

Rehabilitation is a lifelong process, and Nicholas hopes more awareness of the disorder and programs such as MGH Institute’s Aphasia Center and Boston University’s Aphasia Resource Center -- which offer treatment, support, and socialization -- will allow people to recover and live with aphasia.

“Everybody will continue to improve, but you also need to learn to live with aphasia and live well with aphasia,” she said.


E-mail Kaiser at johanna.yourtown@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter @JohannaKaiser.

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