QPP worker learns to speak again after strokePublished 3:34am Thursday, May 23, 2013
Elim Laack is a proud man. He’s also a lucky, hardworking and a determined survivor of a stroke.
Laack, who prefers his nickname “Butch,” is a lifelong Austin resident, a former union representative at Quality Pork Processors Inc., a Vietnam War veteran and former Marine, and a grandfather. He and his wife, Linda, would have never guessed the so-called rock of the family would have suffered a stroke.
On Dec. 14, 2011, concerned coworkers at a union meeting told Butch something was wrong. They took him to the hospital.
“I got kind of dizzy,” he said. “Like I was seeing two different things. I got through the meeting and was talking to the president and one of my union friends, and they stopped me and said, ‘You’ve got a problem.’”
Doctors sped Butch to Mayo Clinic in Rochester after they determined he had had a stroke. Strokes are, in effect, the loss of brain function caused by a lack of blood, whether it’s a problem with a person’s blood being blocked or due to a hemorrhage. It can be deadly within minutes, and can cause permanent damage to a person’s movement, sight or ability to process speech. Though Butch had no physical damage from his stroke, he found it nearly impossible at first to speak.
He was later diagnosed with apraxia of speech, which means he has difficulty starting and continuing the movement patterns necessary to form words in some occasions when his vocal chords are otherwise fine. He also has aphasia, or difficulty in using or understanding certain words at times, finding the right word to express a thought or writing sentences in some cases.
Linda was away from home at the time, seeing to Butch’s brother who had a brief medical scare. When she got to Mayo, she was surprised to see Butch lying in a hospital bed, with an unfocused expression on his face.
“He couldn’t speak at first,” she said. “He could only say numbers.”
What’s more, Butch’s memory was affected by the stroke. He didn’t remember Linda, his wife of 43 years, at first, and couldn’t remember many other things, from the names of his coworkers to descriptions of food, tools and other items around him.
Linda had always relied on Butch, from his wisdom to his technical and mechanical prowess, and so she set herself to be the rock for him.
“I was determined he was going to know who I was,” Linda said, tearing up at the memory. “I kept on, kept on, kept on pushing. He would say, ‘I can’t,’ and I would say ‘Yes you can.’”
Through Linda’s perseverance and the help of Michelle Soukup, a speech language pathologist at Mayo Clinic Health System — Albert Lea and Austin, Butch has regained his speech and more.
Soukup worked with Butch for several days a week throughout all of 2012, helping him to describe things and events around him, getting him to talk about his day, and aiding him in rediscovering much of what many people take for granted.
Butch made progress slowly but surely, working with Soukup in speech therapy at the hospital and doing even more lessons at home with Linda and other family members.
One of the lessons Butch and Linda remember most was the time Butch worked in the garden with 5-year-old Regan, one of his grandchildren. When they came back inside, Butch had difficulty saying which vegetable they had just dug up. It was Regan who pointed at Butch, and asked him to say “cucumber” with him.
“It was tough for him, so she tried to help him,” Linda said with a smile. “And it was priceless, very priceless.”
Though Butch went to speech therapy — “class” as the Laacks told their grandchildren — about four times a week, he gradually improved throughout the year, decreasing his classtime down to only one day by October 2012. Often, he would stay past the hour-long class to further work with Soukup on topics or ideas he was trying to verbalize.
“I wanted to make sure I got it right,” he said.
Soukup said Butch and Linda were determined to succeed, despite the tough barriers Butch faced.
“They worked tremendously at home, and that is a huge part of Butch’s success,” she said. “I don’t think Butch would be where he’s at today were it not for the support he got at home.”
Doctors at Mayo Clinic in Rochester determined Butch had moved beyond speech therapy, and with his Social Security about to kick in, the 63-year-old decided to retire from QPP and continue improving his speech at home.
Yet Butch hasn’t lost much because of the stroke. He’s still able to enjoy and do many things, from driving around town to getting out on the lake fishing, though at times he struggles with remembering sequences like turning on a lawnmower. At the same time, he realizes things he hadn’t thought about in some time, like when he helped his son fix the washing machine over the phone.
Butch is excited to get out on the lake this summer, as he has missed being able to go fishing. He and his family understand it could take years for him to completely heal from his stroke, but he is still determined not to let it get the best of him. As Linda puts it, Butch is a big man who was knocked down by one little word — stroke. That doesn’t mean he’s going to keep down, however.
“It’s still all there, but some of it just needs to go a little deeper,” he said.
—May is Better Speech and Hearing Month.