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Stroke survivor, robbed of speech, finds her words in music

NORFOLK, Va. (WUSA9) — There’s something about music. Your foot starts tapping, your head starts bobbing, your emotions soar. Music lights up your mind.

Therapists are using music to heal damaged brains.

It’s like a miracle. Patients who’ve lost their ability to speak because of a stroke or traumatic brain injury are steadily finding their words in the music.

Just before Mother’s Day 2014, a stroke robbed Peggy Andrews of her ability to speak. For seven months, the retired high school guidance secretary was mute.

It was like having a word on the tip of her tongue, only it was all of her words. She can understand everything but can’t find the words to respond all the time.

But then she listens to music.

Her daughter can scarcely believe that after a single session of neurological music therapy at the Sentara Music and Medicine Center in Norfolk, Peggy could find a few words again.

“I was crying. We were all crying. Because we’d never had a break through,” her daughter said.

Doctor Kamal Chemali says there’s nothing that activates as much of the mind as music. Language is focused in a very small part of your brain, and if it’s damaged, you can lose the power of speech. It’s like a roadblock in your neural pathways.

“Think about music as a way to rewire your brain. Instead of just sitting in traffic and waiting and being frustrated, you can find a different route,” Dr. Chemali explained.

Therapist Tracy Bowdish starts with a melody, then adds words. Once Peggy learns the words, the therapist takes the music away.

Frustration turns to joy.

Doctor Chemali says if the injury kills the all the neurons that control language, there’s no way to bring them back. But if they’re just damaged, music can help them heal.

According to the CDC, stroke is the number one cause of disability in America. Advocates are convinced music therapy can help some of its victims, but there are still very few insurance companies that will cover the costs.

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