Last updated at 11:49 PM on 20th July 2009
Nick Brittain was travelling home from work when he suffered a heart attack. The former chief accountant at Barclays International Bank then suffered a stroke in hospital and was told he was unlikely to speak again.
But thanks to a new technique, he has defied doctors' expectations. Here Nick, 69, who lives with his wife Patricia, 70, near Godalming, Surrey, tells DIANA APPLEYARD his story.
Nick Brittain: Refused to accept the doctor's diagnosis
As I lay in hospital, the nurses and doctors moved around my bed chatting to each other and I felt an overwhelming sense of fear and confusion. They seemed to be talking in an extraordinary language, and I could not understand a thing.
When I opened my mouth to speak, I found the same thing was happening to me: I was speaking in a bizarre foreign tongue. It was the most appalling realisation.
My memory hadn't been affected, and I knew why I was in hospital. I'd been at Waterloo Station, on my way home from work, when I suddenly felt a dreadful pain across my chest. The manager above the platform saw what was happening and, thank goodness, called an ambulance.
I couldn't speak, and the paramedic who raced down the platform immediately gave me aspirin - to thin my blood and prevent a blood clot - and also gave me oxygen, quite possibly saving my life.
I was taken to accident and emergency at St Thomas' Hospital, where I was told I'd had a heart attack and underwent an emergency bypass. Two days later, I had a stroke - a blood clot travelled up from my heart into my brain.
The stroke killed off some of the brain cells in the left side of my brain - the side dealing with language, reading and writing. This was why language suddenly became unintelligible to me. My wife Pat was told so many nerve cells had been damaged, the likelihood was I would never speak.
Of course, I was unaware of this as I lay in my bed, my brain in a whirl. I only managed to pick up a few words from the doctor, such as 'speak' and 'again' but, from the look on his and my wife's face, I knew exactly what he had said.
A surge of determination rose inside me - I was going to prove him wrong. I was filled with resolution. I knew my brain and memory were working - I just couldn't speak intelligibly. Bizarrely, it was nouns I completely lost.
I spent about five weeks in hospital, and began having speech therapy. We use only ten per cent of our brain's capacity, so I deduced that it must be possible to re-educate the brain to learn language.
I got hold of a dictionary and began writing out lists of words. I knew the words in my head, but I could not articulate them myself or understand them when other people were saying them to me.
The best way I can describe it is that it was like being a baby and learning to talk all over again - listening to the sounds of words and associating them with either the word on the page, the actual object, the way a person's mouth moved or the sound.
I was suffering from aphasia - a difficulty with language which is caused primarily by strokes. Having aphasia is like being trapped in a foreign land, and you can understand why so many stroke victims withdraw into themselves. But I was determined - I am not the sort of person to give in.
When I got home, I made stickers of words such as door, table, light, and stuck them on the objects. I also wrote down hundreds of other words and stuck them on the walls, so I was constantly looking at them. I would work on them for ten hours a day.
At the time of my stroke, I was only months from my retirement, so my career was not affected. But even then, in the early days, I had no intention of sitting at home.
Pat was extremely supportive, and slowly I began to build up a basic vocabulary and make sounds that she could understand. I watched myself in the mirror as I spoke, watching my lips and tongue.
I dug out the reading books my children used when they were two or three, such as Janet And John, and developed my own system of word association.
Still, I was struggling to organise my brain to retain all these new words I was learning, and I had difficulty understanding any conversation involving more than one person.
Birdsong cure: Nick learnt how to talk again using a new therapy called Samonas, which stimulates the ability to recall language using natural sounds
I had 150 speech therapy lessons, but to me the major breakthrough was when a friend told me about a mobility, speech and language expert called Judy Sommer.
Judy uses a German system called Samonas, which uses music and the sounds of nature such as the sea, apparently to stimulate the nerve cells in the brain, enabling you to think calmly and clearly.
Samonas was developed in 1991 by a sound engineer and scientist, Ingo Steinbach. Using brain scans, he discovered that listening to classical music caused intense electrical activity in the brain, stimulating the ability to recall language. The same reaction occurred using natural sounds such as birdsong and crashing waves.
Monitoring patients, he found that not only was there intense activity in the brain, but that patients also became much more relaxed, yet alert and focused.
In half-hour sessions with Judy, I would sit and listen to a set of CDs, containing a range of sounds from classical music to birdsong. I found that when I had been listening to the CDs, I could both hear and form words much more distinctly and with more ease - it was as if the CDs were 're-training' my brain to understand language.
I worked with Judy for about a year, having several sessions a week, and it made the most remarkable difference.
Today, nine years on from the stroke, people meeting me for the first time have no idea that I lost my ability to communicate. I can cope in public situations such as parties, but I do have to concentrate quite hard when a lot of people are talking. I don't understand every word, and every day I read the dictionary obsessively.
Place names can be hard for me, and people's names. But since my stroke I have been a director of London First, a business membership organisation, and I work with a charity for the homeless in London's East End, so I am very busy and active.
I also work closely with the charity Speakability UK, which helps people who have aphasia.
I hope other people will draw encouragement from my story. It was quite hard and took a great deal of perseverance, but I was determined not to accept the doctor's prognosis that I would never talk again. And I have proved that if you have the willpower and the support, you can make it happen.
My consultant says he is amazed at my recovery and the way I have re-trained my brain. But I haven't stopped there: I am now teaching myself to speak French, which I used to be able to speak quite fluently.
• www.samonas.com/dm For more information on aphasia, contact www.speakability.org.uk