December 03, 2012

Bucknell students working with clients at the Aphasia Center

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By Molly O'Brien-Foelsch

LEWISBURG, Pa. — It was one of those moments that make you almost believe in psychic phenomena.

The clients at the Central Pennsylvania Aphasia Center in Danville, Pa., were confessing childhood transgressions. A man named Greg was trying to tell the group that, when he was a boy, he'd stolen something related to ice cream.

Greg knew what he wanted to say, but he was struggling to find the words — a stroke years ago has left him with aphasia, an impairment of the ability to process speech, writing or reading.

Searching the room for help, Greg locked eyes with Tim Kepple, a Bucknell University sophomore majoring in creative writing and East Asian studies.

Kepple said, "Ice cream sandwich. You stole an ice cream sandwich."

Greg smiled, and the group let out a collective "ooh."

Learning through service
Kepple, along with classmates Marisa Taddeo and Bridget Gates, were visiting the Aphasia Center as part of the Bucknell linguistics course Language and the Brain. Taught by Assistant Professor of Linguistics Heidi Lorimor, the course introduces students to the nature of language and explores the symptoms and neural differences of a range of disorders affecting language, including Alzheimer's, ADHD and aphasia.

Lorimor included service experiences in the course so students could both give back to the community and see firsthand how language disorders affect individuals. The 20 students in the class split into groups to conduct service projects and interact with children and adults with language disorders at elementary schools, children's centers, a nursing home and the Aphasia Center. "I can't think of any better way to connect students with what they're studying and help them see how important it is to understand these disorders," she said.

The fragile and durable brain
Eight students in the class worked at the Aphasia Center, where they participated in therapy sessions to help clients use or relearn language. Sessions included hour-long conversation circles and writing exercises such as completing crossword puzzles or grocery lists. The students also developed a fundraiser for the center, shot footage for a forthcoming promotional video and researched the efficacy of long-term treatment. || Aphasia Center fundraiser: Reindeer Fun Run for Kids, Dec. 8, 2012

Taddeo, a senior neuroscience major who plans to become a neurologist, said she took the course because was excited to learn where language and the brain meet. "We're learning about where language can go wrong," she said, "where that manifests in the brain and how it's both so fragile and so resilient."

Center director Robin Petrus enjoys watching the students connect theory with practice. "The textbook only takes you so far," she said. "Here, the students can learn how aphasia presents in a person — what it means for that person. They also see that there's so much more value to a person than their ability to communicate."

Connecting across generations
Indeed, the conversation circle seemed more like an intergenerational social hour than a clinical therapy session as Kepple, Taddeo and Gates took turns asking the clients questions printed on index cards.

"What are some things you did growing up that you never told your parents about?" Kepple asked. The five elderly clients laughed as they reminisced about playing hooky, drinking, going on joy rides, sneaking off to the movies — and enjoying that illicit ice cream sandwich.

"What happens at the Aphasia Center stays at the Aphasia Center," joked Petrus as the group got a little rowdy.

"Some of the clients say they have more fun here than they do anywhere else," said Sandy, a volunteer.

"From their stories, you find out that they were regular teenagers just like we were, out getting into trouble and having fun," said Gates, a senior psychology major who plans to pursue a master's in social work.

Invested and energized
Lorimor said her students come out of their service-learning experiences deeply invested and energized, especially as they see the determination and grit of the people they're working with. "Suddenly word-finding difficulties are no longer an academic issue when my students see someone's face light up because they were able to, with great effort — and some help — find a word and be able to communicate," she said.

"They've had an impact on my life, and I hope I've had an impact on theirs," said Taddeo.

'Pure intuition'
So how did Kepple know that Greg was trying to say "ice cream sandwich"?

"Really it was pure intuition, combined with a personal love of ice cream sandwiches," said Kepple. "The more time you spend with these people, the better you get at filling in the blanks for them. Exactly why that's true would make for an interesting paper."

Contact: Division of Communications