Ready for a Comeback SLP Darlene Williamson gives stroke survivors and people with aphasia a way to keep actively recovering—and hoping. In the Limelight
In the Limelight  |   June 01, 2014
Ready for a Comeback
Author Notes
  • Kellie Rowden-Racette is the print and online editor of The ASHA Leader.
    Kellie Rowden-Racette is the print and online editor of The ASHA Leader.×
Article Information
Special Populations / Language Disorders / Aphasia / In the Limelight
In the Limelight   |   June 01, 2014
Ready for a Comeback
The ASHA Leader, June 2014, Vol. 19, 22-23. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.19062014.22
The ASHA Leader, June 2014, Vol. 19, 22-23. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.19062014.22

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SLP Darlene Williamson (right) and John McManus, a member of the Stroke Comeback Center, enjoy a Washington Nationals baseball game and visit with the team’s mascot, Screech.
Name: Darlene Williamson
Title: Founder and executive director, Stroke Comeback Center, Vienna, Va.
Hometown: Lockport, N.Y.
Let’s all take a moment to thank an anonymous sorority girl at Purdue University in the 1970s. This girl, at the wise age of 21, took her 19-year-old sorority sister, Darlene Williamson—who was then studying medical technology—and explained to her that she needed to find a new major.
“She said to me, ‘You are the least likely person I know who should spend their life looking through a microscope. You talk too much. You need to be with people,’” Williamson recalls.
“And she was two whole years older than me so of course I listened.”
As luck would have it, that sorority sister was in Purdue’s speech-language pathology program and introduced Williamson to her advisor. It didn’t take long before Williamson was hooked. “I couldn’t believe there was a career out there where I could talk all day! It was amazing!”
And today, almost 90 members of the Stroke Comeback Center in Vienna, Va., are benefitting from this decades-old conversation and epiphany. Williamson founded the center, which is celebrating 10 years of helping stroke survivors, people with aphasia, and their families find the ongoing speech-language treatment they need after their insurance runs out.
As Williamson explains it, “When you are a clinician working with patients who have run through all that their insurance company is going to provide and you know that they need more, it’s a really uncomfortable and disheartening feeling to discharge that patient and have them ask you, ‘Now what?’”
Williamson was that clinician for many years. She has spent most of her 35 years as a speech-language pathologist working in acute care and has seen her share of patients who had to stop treatment because of insurance limits. That was her situation, at least, until she served as the clinical director in charge of clinical programing at George Washington University. During her tenure there (1994–1999), she began programs in which graduate students work with patients in aphasia groups. The patients all had cycled out of insurance-covered services but continued to meet with the students and work on their treatment goals. The result, Williamson says, was undeniable.
“The participants loved it, there were good outcomes that were real, and it gave me the idea that this is the way it should go,” Williamson says. “I knew there had to be a model where if everyone around the table paid a little bit, we might be able to make it work.”
Inspired by something that seemed so simple, Williamson got moving. During her first year she rented a small office in Oakton, Va., started with 12 people who met in three groups, and did all the clinical work herself. As the groups continued and word got out, the center grew—and grew. Today, located in a much larger space in a Vienna shopping center, the center runs 38 groups a week and has approximately 90 “members,” ages 25–90. (“They want to be called members because they are done being ‘patients,’” Williamson explains.)
“I never thought it would be this successful—I had no idea it would grow as much or as quickly as it did,” she says.
The center uses a life participation approach to treating aphasia and offers a “menu” of 38 groups based around language, motor speech and apraxia, and cognitive needs. The center also has several activity groups—such as community outings, cooking and technology—and has even commandeered the adjacent dance school studio to start fitness groups that have been wildly popular.
Members’ enormous, ongoing need for these services is the reason Williamson keeps the fee schedule flexible and never turns anyone away for inability to pay. To supplement income from member fees, the center receives grants, holds fundraisers and has found some donors and partners.
One such partner is the Washington Nationals major league baseball team, which provides free tickets for members and has, for the past five years, held an annual Strike Out Stroke Day at Nationals Park, providing recognition for the center’s work.
Not surprisingly, Williamson has since become an avid Nationals fan and is hoping for a good season, but her biggest passion will always be for the center’s members. Williamson hopes her idea will serve as a model for others to open similar centers so that all the patients who need the help can have access to ongoing services.
“Our outcomes show that people with aphasia continue to improve indefinitely, despite what the medical systems will tell you,” Williamson says. “I think they see the recovery as very finite, but we know differently, and I want to help dispel that myth. Every stroke survivor deserves a Stroke Comeback Center.”
1 Comment
June 10, 2014
Valery Yura
Wonderful story
Kudos to you Darlene. I wish every major city could have a Stroke Comeback Center like yours.
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June 2014
Volume 19, Issue 6