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2012 Issue 2

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Regaining Memory, Speech through Foreign Language

A New World Brings Back Stroke Survivor’s Voice

Story By Lisa Pogue

n 1995, then 55-year-old Sherman Turner had a stroke. The certified Master Plumber from Buffalo, NY felt a pain in his head, blacked out, and woke up 30 days later paralyzed in a hospital bed unable to speak or remember anything.

“I couldn’t feel anything,” Turner recalls. “It was devastating.”

While he was in a coma, doctors removed an aneurysm from his brain, later telling him it had been caused by stress. At the time, Turner held a high-pressure job specializing in hiring and training minority and female workers for the government and making jobs minority-friendly.

Turner was discharged from the hospital 90 days after waking from his coma, when his insurance ran out. “I was on my own,” he says. “They said I had no hope to walk again.”

Tough times were ahead as Turner and his wife divorced and his brother and sister both passed away over the next few years.

A New World Brings Back Old Memories

“I had to start all over. And it was rough on me,” Turner says. “When you’re in my kind of shape though, you’ll try anything because you have nothing to lose.”

And start over is what Turner did. He kept trying, pushing through rehabilitation, visiting friends at the local YMCA who would help him relearn to walk and talk, and working in former colleagues’ offices relearning his trade.

Then his doctor suggested he learn a foreign language and immerse himself in a new culture, explaining that people who know more than one language are less likely to have a stroke, Turner says.

He decided to give it a try and attended Swahili classes at Buffalo State College before traveling to Mombasa, Kenya in 2004. Instructors at Mombasa’s Wassermann Language College—a school doubling as an orphanage—started Turner at a third-grade level as he began his journey relearning English and continuing to learn Swahili.

“I was 63 and in third grade with the little kids,” Turner laughs. At first, it was difficult to retain lessons, he adds, but slowly his memory and speech came back. Turner returned to the school every summer for six years. After three years, he was able to speak fluent Swahili.

Afternoons in Kenya were spent at the gym. Turner exercised with the locals and met members of the Luo tribe and President Barack Obama’s cousin who, Turner says, became his personal trainer and aided him in regaining his strength. “He got my fingers working,” Turner says. “My fingers moved for the first time in eight years.”

Turner hadn’t yet heard of Barack Obama, who was still serving as a U.S. Senator at the time, but he promised the Kenyans he would support Obama’s presidential campaign if they would help him recuperate.

“They were always encouraging me with stories of how Barack had hard times,” Turner says. “I found them to be amazing people and I’m very thankful to them.”

Lifelong Dedication Comes Full Circle

In a way, Turner’s dedication to assisting minorities ended up helping him put the pieces of his own life and memory back together.

Turner joined the Army at age 18 and after serving two years went to trade school for plumbing. “I was the first black man to get into the trade school,” he says.

Turner earned his master plumbing license in 1970 and started his own business, biking around asking neighbors if they were in need of a plumber.

“I turned it into a $5 million business,” Turner says. “My mother always told me ‘if you’re going to do something, be the best you can be.’ So as a plumber, I was the best I could be.”

Up until his stroke, the U.S. Government recognized Turner as a top-rated Master Plumber, appointing him to train minorities and create minority-friendly jobs in VA hospitals, the Air Force and Navy. Recalling the dirtiness of discrimination and what so many minorities who worked for him went through is what finally shook Turner’s weakened memory.

“What really shocked me was when I went to Kenya during their presidential elections and Prime Minister Odinga was running against President Kibaki,” Turner recalls. “I saw a lot of racism and the evilness of discrimination and that’s when my memory started to come back.”

Writing the Rest of his Story

Today, 17 years after his stroke, now the 71-year-old has authored three books and is working on his fourth. One of Turner’s first books, Kenya Rehabilitation, describes his time in Kenya and the inspiration Obama and the Luo tribe gave him during crucial stages of his stroke recovery.

“Way back in 1997 I was wishing I had died,” Turner says. “Now I’m happy. And very busy with rehab and writing my books.”

Turner released The New Plumbing Guide last fall, aiming to assist nonprofessionals and aspiring small business owners in do-it-yourself repairs. Though his right side remains paralyzed, Turner types 50 words per minute with his left hand and says it really doesn’t take him long to write a book because he’s writing about things he knows. He plans on using the money from his upcoming book to return to Kenya.

“I enjoy being me again,” Turner says. “Thinking, walking and talking.”


Recovery After Stroke: MEMORY LOSS

Memory loss after stroke is very common and affects everyone differently. Examples of how stroke can affect memory include:

  • Verbal memory: Memory of names, stories and information having to do with words.
  • Visual memory: Memory of faces, shapes, routes and things you see.

If you have memory damage, you may have trouble learning new information or skills. Or you may be unable to remember and retrieve information.

Stroke can cause vascular dementia (VaD), a severe decline in thinking abilities. Some experts believe that 10 to 20 percent of Americans over age 65 with dementia have VaD, making it second only to Alzheimer’s disease as a leading cause of dementia.

Therapies or medicines almost never fully restore memory after stroke. But, many people do recover at least some memory spontaneously after stroke. Others improve through rehabilitation.


Neuropsychologist - A doctor who can diagnose and treat changes in thinking, memory and behavior after stroke. Ask your neurologist for a referral.

Speech and language therapist - A doctor who can help patients with communication and swallowing problems after stroke. To find one in your area, contact the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association at at www.asha.org/findpro/ or call 800-638-8255.

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