Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 5, 2002
Hank Zyp's life of blessings
Stroke has left former WCR columnist with a struggle to communicate
By BYRON PRICE
Special to the WCR
The door opens and in walks a six foot, two inch man with dishevelled white hair, wispy strands sticking out from under a blue chapeau. He is wearing a tweed jacket. A button on the jacket reads: "When your brain holds your words hostage - aphasia."
What is aphasia? Aphasia is a communication disorder caused by brain damage. Stroke (brain attack) is the most common cause of aphasia. Aphasia affects the ability to use language. While intelligence remains intact, people with aphasia may have difficulty speaking, reading, writing and understanding speech.
On April 24, 2002 Hank Zyp, 10-year columnist with the Western Catholic Reporter, had a stroke at his home in Devon. He sustained brain damage affecting his right side and his speech.
Zyp recounts his ordeal: "When I had my stroke I felt like I was in a bubble alone, people talked but it was gibberish to me - nothing. Radio and TV - same thing. I felt naked and helpless like a baby - not being able to make contact."
In the early days and months following the initial stroke, the possibility of a death wish entered Zyp's mind. But his belief system, family, friends and especially the love of his wife Tillie caused him to say "yes" to life.
Zyp has been receiving treatment in physiotherapy and speech therapy in Edmonton and Calgary for the past year. He has great trouble with word retrieval. For example, he knows the concept of "coffee" in his mind, but the word often eludes him. The problem occurs in the processing of the information from the mind to spoken words or words written on paper.
He explains that a good part of his day is spent with a video showing flash cards with a voice saying simple words like "cat," "Devon."
Zyp listens to the sounds and watches where the lips are placed in saying the word. He has to concentrate for every word and finds it to be very tiring.
For Zyp, the written word is returning more quickly than speech. He feels his understanding of what he reads has increased from five per cent to 75 per cent. He can also write some words and uses his artistic ability to draw pictures to illustrate ideas.
The following expression of ideas is drawn from an interview with Zyp in April 2003, one year after his stroke. Zyp demonstrated his fierce determination to express himself. He augmented his limited speech by writing words and using drawings to get concepts across. He also pointed to sections of his previous writings to communicate complex ideas.
One thing that was obvious in this interview was that Hank Zyp has retained his intelligence, memory and sense of humour.
Zyp shares the following:
"The experiences of having a stroke has left me sad at times. It is as if something has been taken away from me - like an amputation; but in this case, it is my mind that has been taken away. The professionals call it 'aphasia.' I call it 'hell.'
"I enjoyed writing my column in the Western Catholic Reporter. It gave me contact with the world. Now, it is very frustrating not to be able to communicate as deeply and quickly as I once did.
"People say I'm doing well. Maybe there is hope for me to get better but I feel I will not be the same as before. I had a passion for words and now I struggle for the simplest of words. Life was good for me. Now there is a big change. I feel like Job in the Old Testament - why is this happening to me? I also feel very lucky that I can still draw.
"I always talked about the global community. Now I realize like never before how much I have to rely on people. The stroke has also taught me more about two virtues than any other experience in my life - humility and patience. These are much more a part of my life than in the past.
"My sadness, weeping and tears are caused by my inability to express what is in my head. I could write poetically before, but that eludes me now. I live in a confusing world in my mind. I am looking forward to the future but I have to keep my desire in check because I am wishing, maybe unrealistically, that all will be the same as before.
"I believe I am more realistic about my expectations at this stage of my recovery. I guess that is realistic progress.
"When I wrote for the WCR I wanted to teach the wisdom of the poor and their history. I have spent most of my life working with the poor. We in the West with our great cities, architecture and technological achievements look at ourselves as clever. I don't think we can say that we have wisdom.
"In my journey with the poor peasants who have very meagre lives by our standards, I came to realize that the valuable wisdom they had to impart was very much akin to the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. All my life is about making contact with humanity. My sense of being, thinking and feeling is the connection that makes me feel alive.
"One day I hope to write again on behalf of the poor but I know I have to begin with a smaller ambition. I will begin by writing letters to people. Somewhere down this winding road my capacity could kick in.
"As I look back on my life I have to say I have been very lucky. I had the opportunity to write manuals, books and columns. I have worked in Third World development, worked with native peoples and sung in the choir. I have gained much from the opportunity to meet people like Ernesto Cardenal and other friends who fight for justice for God's people. I would say my life has been a life of blessings."