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For Aphasia Clients, Pictures Are Worth Thousands of Words

August 21, 2015

Thousands of Words

2015 Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology graduate Caitlin McDonald (right) poses with Aphasia Center client Romy Habte-Yohannese and her portrait at the exhibit's opening.

Caitlin McDonald combined her love of photography with her graduate education in communication disorders to create a photography exhibit, “Thousands of Words,” dedicated to raising awareness of a little-known condition called aphasia.

“We do a lot of picture-based therapy with clients in the Aphasia Center, and I became interested in how pictures can often help them communicate better,” says McDonald, who completed her Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology in 2015. “It got me thinking about using my love of photography to help show a more complete picture of who they really are and raise awareness about their struggles.”

The exhibit featured 11 clients who receive therapy from students and faculty in the graduate school’s Aphasia Center. It was unveiled earlier this month at its Charlestown Navy Yard campus.

Aphasia is a condition in which a person who suffers a brain injury, most often from a stroke, loses some or all of their ability to verbally communicate effectively. The National Aphasia Association, which estimates that aphasia affects more than one million people throughout the country, reports that it is more common than Parkinson's disease, cerebral palsy, and muscular dystrophy. Yet it remains relatively unknown to the general public.

Several clients McDonald photographed with her Nikon D5000 have received free services for a decade and beyond at the MGH Institute, both in the Aphasia Center and the Physical Therapy Center for Clinical Education and Health Promotion – years after their insurance benefits have expired. Students, under the supervision of faculty, assist the clients in making the small and steady advances to help them regain some of their previous communication skills and physical independence.

One client, Richard Arsenault of Malden, is one of the more well-known aphasia clients. Always arriving on campus with a big smile and a booming voice, he has regained much of his speaking abilities after coming to the Aphasia Center for the past several years. His quote, which is on one of several posters on the walls adjacent to the photographs, sums up a client’s dilemma: “It’s in my brain, but I don’t have the words. It drives me crazy!”

McDonald visited most of the clients in or near their homes, wanting to portrait them in locations where they felt most comfortable. Sites included the waterfront, park benches, and other favorite spots. She also used information from interviewing clients to create photo captions to describe what it has been like to lose their communication abilities.

Her goal of increasing aphasia awareness has already occurred in her hometown of Hingham. The owners South Street Gallery, Aisling Gallery & Framing, and Framing Concepts – who previously had never heard of aphasia – provided free services to help mount and frame her photos for the exhibit. “I’m extremely grateful for their support, because the exhibit could not have happened without it,” she says.

Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where she trained during her education, also displayed her photographs; several of the clients also receive therapy at the hospital’s state-of-the-art facility.

Many clients, McDonald notes, were not able to return to their former professions, which included a reggae musician, professor, and firefighter. For them and their family, being afflicted with aphasia meant a new world of spouses becoming full-time caregivers, friends and relatives helping out, old friendships lost, and new friendships made. Qualities such as gratitude, patience, perseverance, resourcefulness, and perhaps most salient, humor and independence, have triumphed over their hardships.

“Whether they are able to speak many words or none at all, they convey thousands about the human spirit in the exemplary way they lead their lives,” McDonald explains. “This project was a tribute to the people I met who are struggling with something many have never even heard of. My hope is that in helping to share their stories, we can raise awareness in the community.”