Meet Laurel, the inspired stroke survivor

The children and youth that Laurel Fontaine volunteers with at her North Attleboro church adore her. And who wouldn’t? She’s got a lot to say, she has a beautiful smile and a great sense of humor, and she’s passionate about giving back.

It’s been a long road for Laurel. If you didn’t know her history, you’d never guess that eight years ago, when she was just 11 years old, Laurel suffered a massive stroke that destroyed most of the left side of her brain.

Within minutes that Memorial Day weekend, a medical helicopter landed in the park where Laurel and her twin sister had been playing and airlifted Laurel to the hospital. While she spent the next 10 days in a coma, doctors gave her parents a very grim scenario: If she was to survive, Laurel would probably never be able to walk, talk, or care for herself again. One of her doctors said it was the biggest stroke he’d ever seen.

“My doctor told me I’m not going to talk, I’m not going to walk, I’m not going to, like, do anything … press buttons … ever,” she recalls.

Because the stroke had destroyed most of the left side of Laurel’s brain, including the area that controls speech production, talking was one of her biggest challenges: Laurel had aphasia. After a year of conventional speech therapy, Laurel could produce only one or two words at a time.

About a year after the stroke, a relative saw a news story about the Melodic Intonation Therapy (MIT) research being conducted at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC). Laurel’s mother immediately contacted the researchers, asked them to evaluate her daughter, and persuaded them to apply for the special permission that would allow her then 12-year-old to undergo Melodic Intonation Therapy at BIDMC. The researchers would also monitor her speech and language progress, and her brain’s response to treatment throughout the therapy.

“The goal of Melodic Intonation Therapy is not to turn the person into a singer, but to help them speak again using intonation as a bridge,” says Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, Director of the Neuroimaging and Stroke Recovery laboratories at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Once the basic process is learned, using the intonation (singing), continuous voicing, and rhythmic tapping unique to MIT can help make producing simple phrases like “I am hungry” become easier. This method has the potential to provide a means for the recovery of speech production that is different from traditional therapies because it is capable of engaging the healthy portions on either side of the brain to support function lost due to stroke or other brain injury.

“Patients with a stroke on the left side of their brain can engage the undamaged right side of the brain for communication by using the unique components of Melodic Intonation Therapy,” says Dr. Schlaug. “It’s like teaching the brain a new trick and then continuously practicing this new trick,” he adds. “The stroke takes brain tissue away. With Melodic Intonation Therapy, we try to re-route the brain’s pathways to help the patients to speak again.”

Laurel participated in the therapy every day for four months with her therapist, Andrea Norton. Her fluency improved and she began rebuilding her vocabulary. Now, she doesn’t even need to sing the words out loud, but does so quickly in her head if she is having a hard time producing the words to express her thoughts.

“On her first day, she started with about eight words,” David Fontaine says of his daughter’s progress. “Now she has about 8,000.”

Laurel is offering a gift of her own. She has created a business card that identifies her as an “inspired stroke survivor,” and she hopes to participate in a program that will allow her to talk to and encourage others who have had strokes as they begin their own journeys on the long road to recovery.

“I want to give others hope,” she says, “so they understand with hard work and a positive attitude, things can get better.”

To learn more about Laurel (and Deb, the author of Identity Theft), check out this story:

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Below, you can hear more about Laurel from her interview on Strokefocus Podcast: