When a stroke limited college professor's voice, he turned to writing

By Suzanne Marta, American Heart Association News

Stroke survivor Bob Parker at his favorite coffee shop in Pasadena, California. (Photo courtesy of Bob Parker)
Stroke survivor Bob Parker at his favorite coffee shop in Pasadena, California. (Photo courtesy of Bob Parker)

Bob Parker was waiting for a parking spot at his neighborhood coffee shop when he suddenly saw a flash. His foot slipped off the break and he crashed into a pole. The café window shattered.

Inside his crumpled car, Parker couldn't speak or move.

A bystander called 911 and Parker, then 72, was taken to a local hospital. Testing showed he'd had a stroke caused by a clot in his carotid artery. Because he got help soon after symptoms started, he was eligible for a clot-busting medicine. His symptoms eased.

"He seemed mostly stunned, but could still talk," said Jennifer Parker-Stanton, Bob's daughter.

That night, Parker had a second stroke. This time, it left him unable to move or swallow and his speech was garbled.

Parker spent 48 days in the hospital, undergoing speech, occupational and physical therapy. By the time he returned home, he was able to walk short distances using a cane but continued to struggle with aphasia – a disorder that impairs the ability to speak and understand language caused by damage in the brain from a stroke. It was a drastic change for Parker, a longtime college professor, mainly teaching English education and early education/reading.

"I had lectured all over the world and after my stroke I could start a sentence, but I couldn't finish it," said Parker, who lives in Pasadena, California.

As her dad recovered, Parker-Stanton said he would sometimes use strange words. He may retrieve the word he wanted to use hours later.

"Once for my birthday, he called to wish me a happy advancement day," she said.

Bob Parker (left) and his daughter, Jennifer Parker-Stanton. (Photo courtesy of Bob Parker)
Bob Parker (left) with his daughter, Jennifer Parker-Stanton. (Photo courtesy of Bob Parker)

Parker's strokes occurred in December 2009. More than 30 years before, he'd been diagnosed with high blood pressure, a major risk factor for stroke and heart disease. He also had a family history of both. However, he didn't manage that risk. He was inconsistent with taking medicine that could've helped control his blood pressure.

A few weeks before his stroke, Parker nearly fainted during his regular 2-mile run. For a couple of hours after that, the right side of his face drooped – a symptom of stroke. Parker said that scared him, but he put it out of his mind when it went away and didn't mention it to his doctor. After his stroke, he learned the episode was one of four transient ischemic attacks – temporary blockages of blood flow that are considered warning signs of a stroke – that he'd endured.

Following his stroke, Parker began regularly taking his medications and maintained a log of his blood pressure readings to share with his doctor.

As a longtime lecturer, he became determined to regain the ability to speak smoothly. His voice was garbled. Yet he discovered writing gave him the fluidity of voice that he'd "lost" initially with aphasia as well as a new sense of purpose.

"I recovered word by word," he said.

In 2013, he reconnected with a former pupil, Jesse Silva. At that point, speech was still a challenge. Parker sometimes typed his thoughts as his voice faltered.

"He knew what he wanted to say, but there was a disconnect," Silva said.

Parker had advised Silva as a doctoral candidate. Now the tables were turned. Silva has helped Parker with his writing. Over the years, Silva has noticed an improvement in Parker's speech.

"There's a better flow in conversation and there are very few moments where he can't remember a word," he said.

Bob Parker (right) reconnected with a former pupil, Jesse Silva, who helped Parker with his writing. (Photo courtesy of Bob Parker)
Bob Parker (right) reconnected with a former pupil, Jesse Silva, who helped Parker with his writing. (Photo courtesy of Bob Parker)

Parker, now 84, writes for three or four hours every day. He's chronicled his stroke recovery and life in his writing, along with poetry and novels. He's published four books since his stroke and is finishing three others. He keeps active, walking a mile each day, and practicing the martial art Qigong to help with his balance.

Parker also continues to visit the coffee shop where he had his stroke. He spends hours there writing and socializing.

"I don't know what I would do if I didn't stay busy," he said.

A year ago, he joined a virtual writing group. He shares his work and reads a poem each week as another way to recover his speech and nurture his love of writing. It was hard at first, he said, to overcome the fear of slurring or speaking slowly.

"When I joined, I was scared of my reading," he said. "Now I am part of the group."

Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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