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The Globe and Mail

After a stroke, I lost all the languages I knew

In the evening of April 4, 2000, I was tired and fell asleep while reading the newspaper. Suddenly, I woke up at 9:45 p.m. and saw that the TV picture was absurdly distorted.

I ran, struggling to keep my balance, to the telephone on the kitchen counter to call my son, David. I told him, "Something is wrong with my brain."

When David asked me to describe the symptoms, I tried to tell him how I felt but I couldn't complete the sentence, and perhaps switched to another language my son didn't know.

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While I sat on a stool at the kitchen counter and held forth in a foreign language, a woman's voice cut in over the phone line. My son must have called 911. She asked me several rapid-fire questions – my name, address – and encouraged me to keep talking.

I believe I understood the questions she had posed. The last words she spoke were, "Sir, the paramedics will be there momentarily. Open the door widely, all the way if you can."

I remember telling her, "I'll try."

"Sir, after you open the door," she said, "I want you to come back to me. I don't want to lose you."

As soon as I left the telephone to open the door, there was a mighty noise in the kitchen.

My next memory is of waking up for a transient moment, seeing myself lying on the floor next to the fridge and two paramedics putting me onto a stretcher with my son and neighbour there.

When I came out of a coma at the University of Alberta Hospital, the world seemed surreal. The intensive care unit looked like a sun-kissed oasis full of plants and flowers, and the patients appeared distant from me. I saw a doctor examining a patient at his bed far from mine but the next moment, the doctor – defying the rules of physics – materialized at my bedside.

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The doctor asked me, "How are you, Mr. Kamal?" I was confused – the doctor was talking to me in Urdu, the first language I learned in India. The doctor was a neurologist who knew Urdu. While I was in and out of a coma in the emergency ward, I was speaking Urdu and the doctor had deciphered my gibberish.

I ventured to get out of bed to see if I could walk. While roaming the corridors of the ward, I saw posters and bulletins that depicted the symptoms of a stroke. I recognized the word "stroke" and tried to pronounce it but was dismayed to discover I couldn't. Nor could I entirely read the literature.

It was April 6. I had been in a coma for two days.

Before my stroke, I had failed to recognize its precursor. While I was playing tennis in June, 1999, one of my feet became so heavy that I couldn't move it. A few minutes later, I could walk around the court. The club pro, who was playing with me, offered to drive me to the emergency room. I was unsure whether I should go to the hospital or just go home. In the end, I drove to emergency and the pro followed me.

After a two-hour wait, I asked the doctor to check my heart because I had had a heart attack in 1996. Six hours later, the doctor told me it wasn't a heart attack. If I had told the doctor that my foot had become heavy, he might have recognized that I had had a transient ischemic attack – a harbinger of a full-fledged stroke that leaves no trace.

My stroke was located on the left hemisphere of the brain, where the machinery for speech, writing and comprehension lie. The stroke left me aphasic. In the aftermath of the stroke, I lost all the languages I knew – English, French, German, Urdu and Bengali. I could neither read and write nor speak and comprehend. My vision had been damaged, so I was no longer allowed to drive.

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I was plunged into depression and racked with panic attacks. I was a retired professor of physics at the University of Alberta and all the things I used to enjoy – physics, writing, travelling, sports, theatre – I could no longer do.

After 10 days in hospital, I was transferred to the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital. My family rallied around me, and after a five-week stay at the hospital I was discharged. David stayed at my house for four months until I got my bearings.

Undaunted, I rounded up my own children's books along with picture and alphabet cards and launched an uphill battle against my formidable foe – aphasia. David drove me to the Glenrose Hospital twice a week to learn English under the tutelage of a speech pathologist. I thrived under her guidance until, in December, 2000, she told me I had successfully achieved the required goal and she couldn't teach me any more.

I had joined a "neighbourhood chat" group to build up speech skills under the leadership of a speech pathologist. And I got help from the University of Alberta's department of speech pathology, which needed aphasics like me to train graduate students before they finished the program.

After I had the stroke, a speech pathologist told me that I would show improvements in all my mental faculties over the following year and a half. However, at 75, I'm still learning. My speech, comprehension of spoken language and syntax are still improving, albeit slowly. The message is that if you challenge the brain, it will respond. Although at a certain age our memory bank starts to deplete, I'm sanguine about the future.

Abdul N. Kamal lives in Edmonton.

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