The stroke survivor never lost his command of the language of dance, art and song

Paula Gallagher, stroke survivor. (Photo courtesy of Paula Gallagher)

When Paula Gallagher arrived at a rehabilitation center five days after her stroke, she felt overwhelmed and devastated.

She couldn’t speak either. The clot that had reached his brain had stolen his voice.

Gallagher, who lives in Madison, Connecticut, was diagnosed with a form of Broca’s aphasia, which meant she could understand what others were saying but had trouble speaking herself. She also suffered from apraxia, an inability to control the muscles used to form words.

Upon admission, she could not speak or write, not even her name, but she could read and understand speech.

And she still knew how to dance.

In her room, the former professional dancer would move through different dance styles – ballet, modern, belly dancing.

One day, an assistant saw her belly dancing. Every shift, this staff member would try to get into Gallagher’s room so they could belly dance together.

Gallagher spent three weeks at the facility undergoing intensive therapy. When she got home, she could only say a few words. His first name. Salvation.

When she started using “yes” and “no”, she didn’t always use them correctly.

About three months after the stroke, her husband, Bill Johnson, told Gallagher how impressed he was with her dedication to speech therapy.

“What else am I going to do?” she replied happily.

Paula Gallagher (left) with her husband, Bill Johnson.  (Photo courtesy of Paula Gallagher)
Paula Gallagher (left) with her husband, Bill Johnson. (Photo courtesy of Paula Gallagher)

She had uttered her first sentence since the beginning of her ordeal.

This ordeal began days before Christmas 2020. Johnson was awake early and reading downstairs when he heard Gallagher pacing back and forth in an upstairs hallway.

He went to see her and found her confused and unable to speak. Johnson immediately suspected a stroke and called 911.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson had to drive his own car behind the ambulance to the hospital 30 minutes away. He then had to wait outside while she was treated in the emergency room.

Doctors called him to tell him they had found a clot in Gallagher’s middle cerebral artery. They wanted his permission to perform a procedure called a thrombectomy to remove the clot.

“There’s been a lot of damage, and it can only get worse,” the doctor told him.

“Yes do it!” Johnson almost yelled into the phone.

Before the procedure, Johnson was allowed to come see his wife.

“I’ll be fine,” he told her. “They know what they are doing.”

Within seconds he was led to the nearest emergency exit, left alone to find the parking lot where he had parked his car.

On the way home, he received another call. The clot had been removed and Gallagher had retained motion in all of his extremities.

Doctors spent days trying to determine the cause of the stroke. Gallagher was fit, ate a healthy diet, hadn’t smoked a cigarette in 35 years, and had no family history of stroke.

They never found a reason, calling it “cryptogenic,” the term for strokes of unknown origin.

She had, however, been under extreme stress the year before her stroke, including caring for her dying mother in Florida, moving from Washington, D.C. and losing family members to COVID-19. Chronic stress has been shown to be associated with increased cardiovascular events.

After the breakthrough of his first sentence, Gallagher continued to progress.

Now, a year later, while she sometimes speaks hesitantly and can’t always find the word she needs, she is able to communicate at a basic level and continues to improve. Writing is always very difficult.

With an occupational therapist, she worked on functional skills such as basic math, counting money and telling time.

“The first time the therapist put a quarter, a dime, and a nickel in my hand, I had no idea what it was for,” Gallagher said. “We used a lot of flash cards for math and clocks.”

One of her favorite therapeutic techniques remains melodic intonation therapy, which uses singing to improve language.

Singing nursery rhymes is especially effective, Gallagher said. Two of his favorites are “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater” and “Rub-a-Dub-Dub”.

“They help me become more lyrical in my speech,” she said.

As an independent single woman into her 50s, the 69-year-old sometimes feels frustrated having to rely on Johnson for so many things. But she is also grateful for the support and encouragement. The two have been married for 10 years; both retired in 2018.

Dance and creativity remain an important part of Gallagher’s life. She has participated in online classes and creates dance-themed collages, as well as poetry. She also hopes to teach the sacred dance, which she has practiced for years.

Paula Gallagher continues to express her creativity through dance and thematic collages, like the piece above.  (Photo courtesy of Paula Gallagher)
Paula Gallagher continues to express her creativity through dance and themed collages like the piece above. (Photo courtesy of Paula Gallagher)

“Dancing is a great way to express yourself when you can’t talk,” she said. “Dancing is my medicine.”

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

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Dora W. Clawson