I had little to no knowledge or experience of aphasia and strokes, and when I had the opportunity to be introduced to my new friend Avi Golden and hear his incredible story, it opened up a whole new world of understanding and education, and I am thrilled that he has allowed me to share his story with you all.
Avi is a New York resident who was born and raised in Lubbock, Texas. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from Towson University with the hope of one day of returning to university to study medicine.
After leaving his studies, Avi trained as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and had a successful and exciting career working as a critical care paramedic, certified flight paramedic, rescue technician as well as in some allied roles as firefighter, hazmat (hazardous materials) operations and weapons of mass destruction technician. He also worked for a time as a paramedic with Magen David Adom in Israel.
In 2007 and at the age of 33, Avi made the decision to return to university to follow his dream of studying medicine in Israel. Just before he was due to travel, Avi was diagnosed with a prolapse near the aortic valve in his heart. A hereditary condition, the operation was due to be a routine surgery and he was expected to make a quick recovery, just like his father and had done with the same procedure years prior.
During the surgery, Avi suffered a stroke on the left side of his brain, leaving him with paralysis on the right side of his body and profound aphasia. His life had changed in an instant. He remained in the care of the wonderful staff at Columbia Hospital for four months before he was moved to a rehabilitation facility run by the Long Island Jewish Health System. For a year after his stroke, he was only able to say one word "Michael". His friends and family rallied around him, keeping his spirits up.
Aphasia is a language and communication disorder that affects a third of all people who suffer from a stroke, head injury, brain tumor or other neurological illness. A stroke is the biggest cause of aphasia. The Stroke Association estimate that more than 350,000 people in the UK currently suffer from aphasia. The National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) state that approximately 1 million people in North America acquire the condition annually.
There are two types of aphasia - fluent and non fluent. People who suffer from Broca’s aphasia (which is the most common type) may understand what is being said, however it takes some effort to respond and they often speak in short sentences. They will often omit small words such as "is," "and" and "the”. People with Broca’s Aphasia often have right sided weakness in their body.
People who suffer with Wernicke’s aphasia often have difficulty understanding words spoken to them, however their speech is not as badly affected as those with Broca's aphasia. Sufferers will often speak in long sentences that sometimes have no meaning, they will add in unrelated words and often use made up words. Reading and writing is often impaired.
Avi underwent two months of in-patient rehabilitation and continues to complete an intensive home rehabilitation plan for his mobility and speech. His determination to recover has led him to try some non traditional treatments that included a mix of acupuncture, massage, tai chi, yoga, constraint therapy, water therapy, computer games and special speech software. Avi also tried using a Neuromove™ stroke rehabilitation device on the right side of his body. He still has some issues around balance and weakness which he continues to work on weekly.
You can tell by watching Avi giving one of his many motivational talks that he is an outgoing, fun and charismatic person. One of the most difficult parts of his symptoms is the expressive aphasia and it is what understandably frustrates him the most. It means that occasionally Avi finds himself unable to express his thoughts and gather the correct words. But he is patient and jovial and by pausing to think and reflect, he can often rephrase what he wants to express during his speeches.
Before his stroke Avi was fluent in English and Hebrew (his mother was born in Jerusalem). Although he can still understand Hebrew, he is unable to read the text and hopes to be able to read it again one day. He works tirelessly to relearn his language skills. He works with a Speech Pathologist and has speech therapy for 15 hours every week.
Avi refuses to let aphasia get in his way. He still works and volunteers as a paramedic and, more importantly, he has become an aphasia advocate. He educates others about aphasia and how it impacts a stroke survivor’s day-to-day life. He has been involved in many aphasia-related projects. Like the myriad of activities in his pre-stroke life.
He has been featured in articles in the US based Publication the ‘Jewish Standard’, and since 2008 he has actively contributed to the “Aphasia Awareness Training for Emergency Responders Project,” for the National Aphasia Association. Avi works with a speech pathologist and together they
teach the EMS, patients and medical staff. He regularly assists with outreach efforts to police, firefighters and EMTs in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Ohio, Illinois, California and also in Israel by participating in training sessions and developing a learning curriculum and educational materials to be used in training programs.
Annually since 2009, Avi has played a lead role in the drama club of the Adler Aphasia Center in Maywood, New Jersey. He has performed many times, often before an audience of 500 people! He has even been a consultant on two productions, “Night Sky” and “Wings, But he seems to have cemented his reputation there with lead acting roles as Tevye in “Fiddler” and The Beast in “Beauty and the Beast”.
Not only is Avi regularly treating the boards with his acting, he also volunteers his time at the Adler Aphasia Center, where he participates in the training of medical residents, medical students and other health care professionals. He attends the center twice weekly and encourages and supports other members of the centre to explore new challenges, new sports and offers lived advice on recovery from aphasia.
Avi says that his stroke hasn’t fundamentally changed him. He’s still the same sociable, affable, and compassionate person that he was before his stroke. He is always eager to help others in need and devoted to his job as a paramedic.
Alongside this, Avi is a true adrenaline sports fan and loves snowboarding and horse riding. He runs an outdoors program called “NYC Outdoors Disability” which organises activities in the New York area, ranging from nature walks to white-water rafting. All of these excursions are specifically for people who live with a wide range of disabilities, including strokes, spinal cord injuries, amputation, or sensory impairments. The programme partners with other organisations, and adaptive equipment is always available when needed.
“After my stroke I was afraid to go to Six Flags Great Adventure Theme Park", Avi said, but he knew he had to go to overcome his own fears so that he could lead by example and encourage other people to try the sport. Now, when he invites members of the center to go on a sporting adventure such as skydiving (he has done this twice!) he shares his own story to show that it can indeed be done. “Come stretch your boundaries,” Mr. Golden urges them to “Expand your horizons after becoming disabled”.
And it doesn't stop there! He has big plans for the future, he would like to expand on his aphasia awareness efforts by becoming a motivational speaker to patients in the North Shore – Long Island Jewish Hospital system. “I tell them anything is possible,” he said. It is this drive and spirit that has seen Avi go from being wheelchair bound to using a walking cane and now unassisted walking and taking part in adrenaline sports!
You can follow Avi and the NYC Outdoors Disability Group at the links below:
And you can listen to, or watch Avi speaking on the links below:
For support or information in your area, please click on the relevant link below: