In the last twenty years at the Aphasia Center, we have met thousands of stroke survivors with aphasia, but we had never met anyone quite like Derrick Wong. Derrick was raised in Richmond, California. There he met Suzanne, and the high school sweethearts married in 1986. Derrick attended college at UC Berkeley. Excelling in communications, he moved to Reno, Nevada for his first job as a television reporter and anchor.
Derrick and Suzanne’s family includes two beautiful daughters, Danielle and Samantha. Derrick was a devoted father who made his family a priority. Derrick’s life was filled with family, work, golf, competition-level tennis, and working out at the gym. He was the picture of health. This all changed in 2008, when Derrick had a severe stroke that caused right-sided paralysis and aphasia. He was 44 years old.
We first met Derrick at the ACC in the fall of 2008. One of the first things we noticed was his incredible smile and generosity of spirit. In the ACC communication groups, even with limited language skills, Derrick encouraged every person he met. Over time, his reporting skills re-emerged and he began asking questions. As speech-language pathologists, we loved seeing Derrick take the initiative during the groups! Derrick taught everyone about determination and resilience.
Perhaps Derrick’s most important lesson was that he never allowed his aphasia to stop him from enjoying life to the fullest. And Derrick personified life participation! Always a competitor in sports, Derrick took on his aphasia and paralysis, and before long he was riding his recumbent bicycle and using Skype to stay in touch with the ACC. Traveling throughout the US and overseas, participating in Star Trek conventions and car rallies, he spread his generous spirit both near and far. Derrick never missed an opportunity to raise awareness of aphasia. At a MINI Cooper rally this past July, he personally spoke to more than 150 people, teaching them about aphasia and asking them to spread the word. And always with his incredible charm and dazzling smile!
Derrick lived life to the fullest until he passed away on August 27, 2016 due to an autoimmune condition. The ACC community is heartbroken to have lost Derrick. But his life and example have inspired us to redouble our efforts to help people affected by aphasia rebuild communication skills and transform their lives. So, as Derrick would frequently say, “Let’s go!”
The first thing you notice about Tom Purbaugh is the way he sees everything and everyone around him. He has been attending the ACC since 2014, beginning with a second opinion aphasia evaluation and one communication treatment group, and then the KeyStrokes aphasia choir and art class. You can tell right away that Tom is a born perfectionist—something that isn’t an easy trait to have when living with aphasia. But Tom comes alive when he is surrounded by the other ACC members—he especially loves the natural banter that occurs in the groups, and his laugh is contagious!
Tom was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, completing high school in 1967. Excelling in academics, he attended the University of Nebraska, graduating with a degree in chemistry. Tom had visited California on and off over the years, finally making a permanent move to the Northern California Bay Area in 1980. A year later, he met his wife, Karen Spina, on a blind date!
Tom and Karen put down roots in Novato, CA and Tom enjoyed family life. Karen enjoyed her position at Levi Strauss. In 1995, she decided to start her own company with Tom. They worked hand-in-hand growing a successful business. Karen says that Tom was the “visionary” of the company, always figuring out ways to overcome the constant business challenges.
Then in 2012, Tom had a stroke that caused severe aphasia and right-sided weakness. When we first met Tom, 18 months after his stroke, the single words he used were hard to understand and he did not attempt to communicate in other ways. He seemed very embarrassed by his disorder, preferring to remain quiet rather than speak.
Meeting Tom today, you can definitely see the improvements! He now jumps into group conversations and is persistent about getting his message across. And although he still has difficulty pronouncing some words and phrases, this doesn’t stop him from communicating with others.
Tom’s life is a powerful example of resilience, and how a stroke survivor can continue to improve for years following a stroke. Tom is learning to tackle the challenges of stroke in the same way he addressed challenges in running a business.
Like many Italian families, Gail and David Giacomelli enjoyed an active social life that included travel and time with family and friends. David was known for hosting large dinner parties where he cooked wonderful meals, entertaining everyone with his conversations and stories. Then one night everything changed.
After the stroke, David had difficulty speaking, he couldn’t walk, and those around him struggled to understand him. Gail needed to work, so David spent long days alone at home. His old friends and family members visited often, but his progress was slow.
Everything changed for David when he began attending the Aphasia Center of California. He participated in two communication treatment groups a week, which brought structure to his life. Now David is eager to come to the Center where he enjoys communicating with his ACC buddies and the speech-language therapists. “At first he couldn’t communicate at all, but now he has 90% of his life back,” says his wife, “socially, his confidence, and his personality.”
Stan, once an outgoing man, lost his job as a substitute teacher and turned to drugs. Then he had a massive stroke. At the age of 55, he found himself homeless and unable to communicate. He received limited speech therapy at the county hospital, but was left with significant communication difficulties. Stan was angry—he felt very isolated by his aphasia. He had managed to get clean and sober after his stroke and was motivated to improve his communication skills. But without health insurance, he wasn’t eligible for additional speech therapy.
When Dr. Elman first met Stan, he was living independently in subsidized housing and very eager to attend the Aphasia Center programs. He enrolled in a communication treatment group, and, almost immediately, Stan’s mood changed. During the first group session, he met six other people with aphasia and learned, in those first 90 minutes, that he was no longer alone.
From that day forward, we have been witness to an amazing transformation: Stan’s anger is gone and his communication skills are improving every week. Recently Stan said to Dr. Elman, “I’m happy!” These two small words speak volumes about the importance of the Aphasia Center of California.