Speaking out after strokes

Melissa Meade was already accepted into the School of Media and Communications Ph.D program when she suffered from three strokes, but still found success.

Melissa Meade had to adjust to losing the ability to speak after three strokes. | Sash Schaeffer TTN
Melissa Meade had to adjust after losing the ability to speak after three strokes. She has since regained her fluency in both English and Spanish. | Sash Schaeffer TTN

Melissa Meade was always a healthy young woman who ran track in high school and college. She never could have imagined suffering from three shocking strokes at age 30. The bilingual student of communication lost her ability to speak as a result.

These strokes occurred at the end of 2007.  At the time, she did not have a strong support system to help during her recovery, as her family was occupied with other serious health concerns. Her father was terminally ill and her mother acted as his caretaker, a taxing responsibility.

“My parents were really not able to be involved in my healing process,” Meade said. “It was kind of just me. I did have a friend at the time [who] would help by picking me up from the hospital.”

Meade had already been accepted into the Ph.D program at the School of Media and Communication. Due to her sudden health problems, she was forced to defer for one year. Even after recovering enough to go about her daily life, Meade suffered lingering physical disabilities, most strikingly a difficulty speaking, as a result of the strokes.

“When people spell words out loud, it is difficult to understand,” she said. “Also, when I first looked at money, it wasn’t recognizable to me. I [only] knew its purpose.”

Though she said she had doubts about her ability, she was able to return to Temple about a year after her strokes.

Despite her disabilities, Meade said she’s been able to find success in her studies at the university. She is a teaching assistant in Elements of Journalism and Design for Journalism this semester. There are several members of the SMC community, she said, who have been transformational in her experience.

“The person I confide in the most is my advisor Nancy Morris,” Meade said. “She is a professor and chair of media studies and production. I very much admire her and I find her to be a source of encouragement and a role model. When I had deferred admission to Temple because of the three massive strokes and I was anxious about entering a Ph.D program, [Morris] made the transmission smoother.”

Meade has maintained a high grade point average in her Ph.D program despite the daily struggles caused by her strokes, including difficulty spelling, using numbers and writing, along with speech. After significant effort, speaking is again possible, though no longer an ability to be taken for granted.

The Mayor’s Commission on People with Disabilities recognized Meade with a scholarship this fall semester. Her work includes one published paper, with more in the works, she said.

“My dissertation uses ethnographic methods and media analysis to examine the relationship between economic abandonment, ethnic relations and conflict in a former Pennsylvania mining region,” Meade said. “This work is important because it considers industrial histories in conjunction with understudied recent new immigrant migration to deindustrialized towns and the ties that bind these small towns to transnational structures.”

She recently traveled to Chicago to present her project for the American Anthropological Association, followed by a trip to Washington, D.C., where she presented her research projects based on the coal mining region to the National Communication Association. Her presentations focused on the process of economic abandonment and the Pennsylvania Anthracite Region, also known as the Coal Region.

Prior to her health issues, Meade attended Albright College for her bachelor’s degree with a double major in Spanish and English and a minor in women’s studies. She also completed a graduate certificate at the University of Pennsylvania in women, gender and sexuality. A fluent Spanish speaker, she lived in the Basque country of Spain for three years on a graduate fellowship.

One of Meade’s greatest fears after her strokes, she said, was of losing her ability to remember Spanish. There was a brief period of time when she could not speak the language she was once perfectly comfortable with.

“I had speech aphasia, which refers to losing language,” Meade said. “I could understand language, but I could not speak it.”

Meade has since improved her physical health tremendously, she said. She was able to recover her Spanish linguistic skills as well as push forward with her Ph.D program. Meade said she still continues to find ways to improve her skills with new strategies that help her cope with daily communication.

“Recovery is every day, because you are not the same,” Meade said. “You have to adjust to the new way [the] body is, because [you] may perceive the world differently.”

Karlina Jones can be reached at karlina.jones@temple.edu.

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