Aphasia patients get chance to be ‘part of life again’

Stephanie Gardiner |

Paul Fraser says TeleCHAT was essential to his recovery from aphasia.
Paul Fraser says TeleCHAT was essential to his recovery from aphasia.

When Paul Fraser collapsed in his Byron Bay home he lay helpless on the floor, suddenly unable to speak.

His wife Julie Brown immediately called an ambulance, knowing he was likely having a stroke.

“He was speaking gobbledygook,” Ms Brown told AAP, recalling the moment at their northern NSW residence in August 2021.

“He was speaking like an alien. But now, it’s chalk and cheese.”

Mr Fraser, a retired social sciences teacher, was among the first cohort of regional Australians to use a new high-intensity telehealth therapy program for people living with aphasia.

More than 140,000 people nationally have the condition which limits the ability to communicate, usually after a stroke damages parts of the brain responsible for language.

The University of Queensland’s Aphasia Research Centre has spent a decade developing the CHAT program which delivers 50 hours of intense speech therapy, compared to an average of 10 hours under usual models of care.

It has been trialled at Brisbane hospitals and will be expanded across seven metro and regional health districts in Queensland, NSW and South Australia to better assess its effectiveness.

Rural patients can access the TeleCHAT program, which offers regular online sessions with a speech therapist.

“There’s a postcode lottery where if you have a stroke, you’ll get fewer services. We want people with aphasia to access this no matter where they live,” centre director David Copland said.

Research shows strokes can pose a greater risk to people in rural areas who may have to travel for care, as patients need to be treated within one hour for the best outcomes.

Professor Copland said those left with aphasia have to learn a language from scratch.

“If we wanted to learn a language and be fluent, we wouldn’t expect to do that in 10 hours but we’re expecting people who have had a stroke to do that.”

Sitting in their sunny home 18 months after the stroke, Mr Fraser and Ms Brown recalled driving back and forth to Ballina hospital, 35 kilometres away.

The therapy sessions were often inconsistent or rescheduled due to COVID-19 restrictions and staffing issues.

A therapist recommended the TeleCHAT trial and Mr Fraser began daily video consultations, learning words and phrases related to his interests, like politics.

“Some of the words were like ‘Scott Morrison’,” Mr Fraser said with a laugh.

He can now sit with friends and take part in conversations, a marked change from the early days of recovery.

“You end up just listening to other people do all the talking because you can’t talk,” he said.

“This program is essential because you become part of life again.”