Brain Disease and the New Me After a 13-year career, an SLP deals with a life-changing condition. First Person/Last Page
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First Person/Last Page  |   July 01, 2016
Brain Disease and the New Me
Author Notes
  • Heidi VanDeMark, MA, is a graduate of Central Michigan University (CMU). She receives speech-language treatment from Lauren Bissell, BS, a CMU graduate student in speech-language pathology, and Bissell’s supervisor, Natalie Douglas, PhD, CCC-SLP, assistant professor in the department of communication disorders.
    Heidi VanDeMark, MA, is a graduate of Central Michigan University (CMU). She receives speech-language treatment from Lauren Bissell, BS, a CMU graduate student in speech-language pathology, and Bissell’s supervisor, Natalie Douglas, PhD, CCC-SLP, assistant professor in the department of communication disorders.×
Article Information
Attention, Memory & Executive Functions / First Person/Last Page
First Person/Last Page   |   July 01, 2016
Brain Disease and the New Me
The ASHA Leader, July 2016, Vol. 21, 72. doi:10.1044/leader.FPLP.21072016.72
The ASHA Leader, July 2016, Vol. 21, 72. doi:10.1044/leader.FPLP.21072016.72
In 1998, as the mother of a 7-year-old, 4-year-old, and 2-week-old, I began graduate school in speech-language pathology. I completed the program with an extra four credits and a 3.98 GPA. I was bright, eager and enthusiastic to begin my career as a speech-language pathologist. I enjoyed my career for 13 years in the medical setting—six in long-term care and the last seven in a hospital working with clients in the acute and outpatient phases of recovery. I also completed at least 700 modified barium swallow studies.
But something was wrong. Around 2013, I started noticing memory and temporal orientation difficulties. In 2014, I could not learn a new documentation system. My supervisor said my notes were unacceptable. She knew my work and was as baffled as I was about my decline in performance. My notes were incomplete, inaccurate and almost always late.
My supervisor advised me to start short-term disability and pursue medical/cognitive testing to find an explanation for my failures. A magnetic resonance imaging scan indicated white-matter brain disease and right hippocampal volume loss. A neuropsychological evaluation revealed reduced information processing, short-term memory impairment, undiagnosed attention deficit disorder, mild cognitive impairment and, less specifically, a neurocognitive disorder.
I have done a tremendous amount of research and it appears there is a perfect storm of damage to my brain. I now know that chronic migraine, chronic depression/anxiety, chronic severe stress, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder can cause brain damage.
I remembered I once told my dad that I wished I could live for one day in the brain of a patient, to have better insight as a therapist … I just didn’t think I’d stay there. There is a grieving process for the loss of my brain. It is a sorrow, like losing a loved one. There is so much I do not know, so much uncertainty. I call myself retired, but mostly I’m just tired.
In my post-SLP journey, I was connected to the speech-language clinic at my alma mater. But this time, I am now on the other side of the table, where I am learning to re-create myself, to redefine me. I am learning that my written and creative expression is well preserved. I am learning that I can stay loving and kind. I am learning I can continue to enhance my love of photography, and to maximize my strengths.
I give guest lectures to graduate students in speech-language pathology. I facilitate group sessions at our cognitive-communication support group. I am me—a new me, but me—and I will hold on to this new identity. I will make every moment count. Memories are wonderful, but you can have a lot of fun without them.
5 Comments
July 17, 2016
Marilee Dunn
question
What was the neurological diagnosis? Is it progressive and what is the expected outcome?
July 5, 2016
Anne Kiselewich
New Me
Thank you Heidi for sharing your personal story. Your positive attitude is an inspiration to others.
July 5, 2016
Anne Kiselewich
New Me
Thank you for sharing your personal story. Your positive attitude is an inspiration to others.
August 1, 2016
Beth Stone
New me
I have some important information I would like to share with Heidi. She can contact me via email at bethstonemax@etczone.com. Thank you for sharing.
August 1, 2016
Edie Jansen
Being on the other side of the desk
Thank you for sharing your story. I've recently experienced the other side of the therapy table. I had a stroke about a month ago. I'm young(ish)in pretty good shape, and don't know what caused the stroke, but am fortunate that it happened during summer break and it did not interfere with my school practice. I start work again in about a week and am energized by the experiences I had going through therapy. I hope to bring that energy to the kids with whom I work, but there is fear that I may not be able to "get back to me" only time will tell. I am in awe of the brain and what it can do!
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July 2016
Volume 21, Issue 7