ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Bill Sanford had spent his life as a speaker, whether as a lawyer arguing a court case, or a negotiator hammering out union contracts.
So his inability to speak after suffering a stroke in June 2007 was more devastating than the paralysis. "I couldn't say anything. I couldn't write . . . it was terrible," he said. "Anything people said to me, I could understand, but I couldn't respond.
"My speech was my strong suit, and I could say nothing."
Sanford was used to a fight, however. He grew up in a St. Louis neighborhood, "... where everybody was going to the slammer."
An alcoholic father punched him, around and his mother was sick and silent. He freed himself at 16, determined not to live the life he'd fled.
He finished high school, then worked in a steel plant to put himself through college and law school.
Those days, he said, molded him and taught him. "Sitting on your butt gets you nowhere," he said. "I made my mind up; I was going to get well."
Sanford's stroke caused what's called aphasia, a condition that took away his ability to speak. Some people with aphasia can't speak or understand language, even though their intelligence is intact.
"That's like suddenly being dropped in the middle of a foreign country," he said. "No one understands you, and you can't understand anyone."
About 20 percent to 30 percent of people who survive a stroke wrestle with some degree of aphasia.
Barnes-Jewish Hospital moved him to Barnes-Jewish Extended Care facility in Clayton.
Therapists worked with him. His sister, Anita Hicks of Detroit, visited and drilled him on speech incessantly. But more than that, he worked on himself.
He read the newspaper out loud every day, starting with comics and their short word-bubbles. Then, the articles.
He regained his faculties steadily.
About six months ago, he joined a new support group at the outpatient facility at Barnes-Jewish Extended Care program in Clayton. It was called the Aphasia Conversation Connection.
Sanford and six others met weekly to share their experiences with aphasia, or anything else.
On a recent day, Sanford brought maps of walking trails in Illinois. Sanford walks more than a mile a day; he lifts weights and exercises, too. He has lost 40 pounds since his stroke. The group wanted to know of places to go.
Next, Werner Bauer, who at 80-plus years old was the elder of the group, told of his days as a "90-day wonder" Navy lieutenant commander on the battleship West Virginia anchored at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He's alive, he said, because the ship didn't roll when a half dozen enemy torpedoes hit it. Instead, it sank 15 feet where it sat on the bottom of the shallow harbor.
Bauer spoke very slowly. His sentences made sense to everyone at the table, and no one judged when they didn't; they even laughed together.
Corky Bahr, 65, told of how her granddaughter became a teacher from ages 3 to 6, reading with grandma, making grandma say the right words, for three years.
"It's a friendly environment where no one judges," said Cathy Huel, rehabilitation supervisor at the center.
Huel listens to the conversations and writes key words on a pad, then holds them up during the exchanges so members have triggers to keep them on track.
When the meeting ended, an appointed spokesman said for the group, "We're all grateful for our spouses."
Sanford's speech is slow but otherwise unhampered. "I get a little better every month," he said.
He's writing a family history and carries a small tape recorder and notes to store ideas. He travels with his wife, Doris.
He has a bit of advice for people who face the challenge of coming back from stroke or head injury:
"Never give up, no matter what," he said. "Keep going, keep going, keep going."