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October 1, 2010 > Woman Forges Ahead 10 Years After Stroke

Woman Forges Ahead 10 Years After Stroke

Free Talk Addresses Future of Stroke Diagnosis and Management and Life After Stroke

Ten years ago Dorene Lopez was driving to pick up her mother Georgia from the airport in San Jose. She remembers feeling strange and then waking up in the hospital with no idea what had happened to her. Even more alarming, she found she couldn't speak and she struggled to identify everyday objects like a penny or a dime.

Dorene had suffered a serious stroke. But that's only the beginning of her story.

"Dorene is a woman who really epitomizes what a stroke survivor should be," says Doug Van Houten, R.N., clinical coordinator of Washington Hospital's Stroke Program and facilitator of the Stroke Support Group at the hospital. "The wrong thing to do after a stroke is for people to withdraw, become dependent and not leave the house. Dorene has done the opposite of that. She's joined a chorus group and sings in front of people. She goes out on her own with a friend even though she has little seizures. I know these aren't easy things to do."

Dorene is also one of the most outspoken members of the Stroke Support Group, prompting Van Houten to call her the group's unofficial facilitator, because her enthusiasm and encouragement helps get the conversation going during the meetings.

But the road to recovery hasn't been easy, according to Dorene, who credits her mother Georgia as her rock. One of the results of her stroke is that Dorene suffers from aphasia, which occurs when the language centers of the brain have been damaged. It took her more than three years after her stroke to relearn the alphabet, she says.

"My nieces, nephews and family members gave me school books; they even gave me the Highlights magazine - everything they could possibly find to help me," Dorene remembers.

She admits that recovery has been tough work, but she continues to persevere and has learned new and creative ways to overcome obstacles.

"I have cried a lot, but then I get back on it," she says. "When I talk to somebody, sometimes the words aren't right, but this is when laughter helps. It's important to pat yourself on the back."

After her own experiences, Dorene has lots of advice for others struggling with aphasia. But, above all else, her number one tool, she says, is laughter. When she has a hard time getting across an idea to her mom, they laugh and give each other a hug rather than get frustrated.

"If you can't talk, you can write or write in the air," she says. "You can also use the association of pictures. Drawing on a chalkboard helps, too."

But sometimes Dorene says just smiling at another person is the most helpful, because it makes everyone feel better.

Van Houten says her determination and commitment to increasing her independence are nothing short of heroic.

"Even after ten years Dorene continues to make progress," Van Houten says. When I first started getting her to come to the Stroke Support Group, she was having a harder time with her speech than she has now. Instead of quitting, she's still challenging herself every day, making the tough decisions and continuing to improve."

One of his goals during the upcoming seminar, he says, is to encourage survivors to work as hard as Dorene has to make improvements to their lives following a stroke.

"Dorene's still making strides every day, and I think it's because she challenges herself," he says. "Like she says, it's hard enough to stand up and sing in front of an audience, but having aphasia makes it even harder."

"She's also quite fortunate in that her mother is very devoted to her. Georgia has just been so supportive of her all along, and it really underscores the value and importance of caregivers for stroke survivors."

Because the speech center on the left side of the brain is such a large area, responsible for receiving and interpreting language, Van Houten says aphasia turns out to be a fairly common side effect of stroke that has unique challenges.

"You can be in a wheelchair and drive your car or get around using paratransit, you can still do your grocery shopping, but if you can't talk... it's that much more of a challenge," he says.

Fortunately there are good resources available in the community to stroke survivors with aphasia, according to Van Houten.

"We have a really good speech therapist at the hospital and there is a program through Cal State East Bay's master's program in speech therapy where stroke survivors can go to work with the speech therapists in training," he says. "It brings about some good results."

Van Houten says the best thing that stroke survivors can do for themselves is to keep striving for whatever level of recovery and independence they can achieve.

For Dorene, she says often it's the simplest things that are the most important.

"It's even nice just to go outside; you don't have to go far," she says.

Living life after stroke

On Tuesday, Oct. 5, from 6 to 8 p.m., Washington Hospital's Stroke Program will hold a free seminar focusing on the future of stroke diagnosis and management, as well as life after stroke at the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditorium located in the Washington West building at 2500 Mowry Avenue in Fremont.

To register for the seminar, call (800) 963-7070 or visit

For more information about the Stroke Program at Washington Hospital, visit

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