Can she see it in his eyes?

Posted: Aug 25, 2006 12:10 AM

Everyday, everywhere, we see America’s families under attack. From the pedophiles and drug pushers going after the kids, to prostitutes and pornographers going after the males, to society’s mixed messages to women about what should make them happy, it’s no wonder that America’s families are in trouble.

With America’s families under siege by so many sensational forces, we all too often forget about the silent hardships that take their toll without all the fanfare and media attention.

A recent tragedy reminded me that many of the struggles faced by American families don’t get the attention and action they deserve.

On Christmas morning last year, a friend’s husband suffered a pretty serious stroke. He was a young guy in his 40’s and in great shape. In an instant, a family that most of us would have envied, was facing a battle that none of us would wish upon even our worst enemy.

The wife was instantly thrust from Girl Scout leader and neighborhood volunteer extraordinaire into the role of at-home caregiver. The physical effects of a stroke are well known -- often causing paralysis and mental impairment – but often after recovery, a different battle commences. Her husband who had been an award winning television producer for shows you probably watch regularly, had a new battle to wage along with his family – the ability to communicate. The diagnosis is aphasia.

a•pha•sia (uh-fay'-zhuh) n. An impairment of the ability to use or comprehend words, usually acquired as a result of a stroke or other brain injury.

Aphasia is caused by strokes and other brain injuries, and can happen to anyone at any age. It affects the production and comprehension of speech, often making the affected person unable to communicate beyond two or three words at a time. Because it affects the communication centers of the brain, the afflicted person can’t even write or type their thoughts. They will have perfectly cogent thoughts in their mind, but no ability to get them out – a thought-prison of sorts that won’t let any word out.

Communication is often the biggest challenge in families and relationships anyway, but it is especially tragic when it seems there is nothing one can do about it – and there is nobody at fault. Men may be from Mars, and women from Venus, but when two people in the same room can’t communicate like they always have been good at, it is heartbreaking.

Aphasia doesn’t get the press that Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s or AIDS get, but it is just as devastating to the families it affects. And it’s actually more common than Parkinson’s.

That’s why the families affected are trying to build more awareness of the tragedy of aphasia. The National Aphasia Association started an ambitious campaign called Operation Oprah. They are hoping that with enough messages, Oprah Winfrey will do a show about the issue. Say what you will about Oprah and daytime television, but she has the ability to make a silent issue into the cause of the day. And besides, a show about aphasia is one less show about Tom Cruise.

The NAA held a message-a-thon the past Wednesday in the hopes of sending “100…200…300” messages to Oprah. It’s Friday and I’m hoping that readers can make that 10,000….20,000…30,000.

The NAA folks have also written a sample letter to make it even easier:

Dear Oprah:

Imagine that you wake up one morning unable to speak, read, write, or understand others. Welcome to the world of aphasia. Aphasia is a communication disorder caused by damage to the language areas of the brain. It is most often caused by stroke, but can be caused by other diseases or brain injuries. Did you know that aphasia is more prevalent than Parkinson's disease? Over 1 million Americans (1:250 people) suffer from aphasia. Aphasia can happen to anyone, at any time, or any age. People with aphasia often lose jobs, friends, and family roles. But aphasia does not affect a person's personality or intelligence, so they still have the desire to do the same things they did before.

A significant problem for people with aphasia is poor public awareness of the condition. Most people are not even familiar with aphasia because people who live with it have difficulty advocating for themselves. Their family members may be too embarrassed or frustrated to talk about it with people who do not understand.

We would love to see you do a show about aphasia. You can find out more information about aphasia from the National Aphasia Association ( )

This is great opportunity for us to help bring awareness about a terrible condition. Aphasia could impact any of us at any time, and it deserves the attention just as much as the conditions that get all the headlines.

I hope you’ll join me in being one of thousands who will join the fight against a condition that robs spouses, families, and friends of their ability to communicate with a loved one.

This also serves as a wake-up call for anyone who hasn’t told their loved ones how much they mean to them. Do it today. You might not be able to get the words out when you finally get around to it.

How tragic that a husband is unable to put his love for his wife into words. I hope she can see it in his eyes.