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After a Stroke, a Song?

Author and TV producer Richard M. Cohen writes about living with a chronic illness.

After two years of difficult therapy that did little to help his speech, Harvey's therapist at St. Vincent's Hospital asked him to sing. The request seemed strange: he hardly could talk. But the therapist wanted to try a technique called melodic intonation therapy. Words usually originate in the left side of the brain, but music—a magnet for pulling out words—comes from the right. Harvey began with "Happy Birthday," and the lyrics began to make sense to him. Harvey was learning patience, and at last his brain was being trained to adapt. With much work, he learned to use the rhythms of music to coax out the words he wanted to say.

Stroke is a leading cause of long-term disability in America. The journey back to normalcy is arduous and uncertain. To sing loud and clear—or as close as he could come to that—is what Harvey did in his desperate effort to find his way home.

Harvey no longer works as a self-employed criminologist. Now he devotes his life to helping others escape from the country of Aphasia, running running several support groups at Saint Vincent's Hospital and Marymount College and founding an organization called the International Aphasia Movement that will provide the latest information and help to aphasia sufferers by aphasia sufferers.

There is a huge untapped market for such services, and Harvey Alter is paid precisely nothing to mine it. This is what so many of the chronically healthy cannot understand about those of us with chronic illness: how can we muster the energy to serve others when we're dealing with the same problems ourselves? The answer is that we see so much suffering around us. We realize there are others much sicker than we and in need of our help.

I have been asked if I would trade in my MS to be disease-free. I always answer no. This is who I am, and now I have a job to do that is more important than any job I have done before. There are no heroes here, no medals or merit badges. There only are people who care deeply, flesh and blood like you, individuals who see it all and want to make life better. Helping others offers its own reward.

Richard M. Cohen is an Emmy-winning TV news producer and author. His column is published on AARP The Magazine Online every two weeks.

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