Friday 7 October 2016

Thankful for the Experience: Volunteering at Alberta Aphasia Camp

Patients and volunteers work together at the 2016 Alberta Aphasia Camp

What an experience. And for me, it was so perfectly timed.

This semester had already proven to be the busiest semester I have ever experienced - a full course load, clinic, my research project and being a TA, all while still trying to find time for the activities I enjoy.

One week into this crazy semester, my aunt had a stroke - a left hemisphere hemorrhage. Knowing the high occurrence of aphasia with left hemisphere strokes and seeing my aunt struggle so much to speak, I was terrified.

In case you’re unfamiliar with it, aphasia is a disorder that can occur when damage is sustained by the brain’s language centres (usually from stroke affecting the left side of the brain). While patients with aphasia remain the intelligent individuals that they were before their brain trauma, they can lose their ability to communicate effectively – often experiencing difficulties with speaking, understanding speech, reading, and writing.

Knowing all this myself, I tried not to jump to conclusions too quickly, but it was really hard to ignore the possibility that my aunt might have aphasia - especially since I’ve been learning about aphasia and other communication disorders every day in class. As she progressed, her speech and language started improving, but I continued to notice things that made me think of aphasia, and even now I’m not sure if she will have any lingering difficulties.

As this was all happening, I was also preparing for my volunteer role with the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine’s annual Alberta Aphasia Camp. Because of everything that was going on with my aunt, I was feeling really emotional about going and was hopeful that it might help me (and in turn, her) in some way.

And it 100 percent did.

It was an amazing weekend filled with accomplishments, new friendships, hope and love.

First, there were the campers. There were a few individuals at camp who had never met another person with aphasia before. For them, it was such an amazing thing to just meet and talk to someone else who was going through the same experience. Being at the camp meant that they were able to talk to people who could truly empathize with what they’ve gone through and what they’ve overcome. Some individuals were even inspired by the others that they met - one individual said that she was determined to work hard so that she would be able to speak at the same level as another camper she had connected with.

Some individuals at camp had physical limitations on top of their aphasia. There were individuals with right hemiparesis, as well as individuals who used wheelchairs to get around. Seeing these individuals do things that they never thought they’d be able to do—archery, canoeing, high ropes—was incredible. And this was made possible by an inspiring team of occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech-language pathology students/volunteers.

A Patient from the 2016 Alberta Aphasia Camp comments on his experience

In classes, we’ve talked about the idea of “revealing competence.” Aphasia Camp really hit this home for me. Often an individual’s competence and the person they are can be masked by their communication difficulties, and when given the time, resources and support they need, their competence can be “revealed.” I feel like I now truly understand what this means, and I feel that this is a big part of a speech-language pathologist’s job.

We need to work with each of our clients to find the strategies that help them communicate thoughts, feelings, and ideas. I met so many individuals this weekend who were able to engage with me in meaningful conversations, despite their communication challenges. Many of my conversations throughout the weekend consisted of drawings (not very good ones on my end), written words, pictures of family and friends, and elaborate gestures, and I was able to learn so much about the campers and was able to tell them so much about myself even when not relying on speech.

This camp really made me excited to work more with individuals with aphasia. I’m thankful that there are places like this camp where my aunt can go if she does have aphasia. These individuals have so much to say, so much to offer, and so much to teach. And with the help of speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, other health care professionals, friends and family, people with aphasia CAN do the things that they want to do and say the things that they want to say. Alberta Aphasia Camp is proof of this.

This camp showcased true interprofessional work. It also brought so much hope and renewed confidence to the campers, their family members, and to me! It made me worry less – about my aunt, about my chaotic life, about everything. And it helped the campers feel that they could accomplish almost anything, which proved to be true throughout the weekend.

Anita Ripmeester - Guest Contributor

Anita is a second-year speech-language pathology student in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. Prior to entering this program, Anita completed her Bachelor of Science in chemistry at The King’s University on the east side of Edmonton. Anita also played on the women’s volleyball team during her time at King’s and competed in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference. Outside of academics, Anita participates in many extracurricular activities, including volleyball, softball and Peruvian dance. 

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