Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Small Seeds Watered with Tears

[Written and delivered at the 2009 Pittsburgh Walk for Children with Apraxia of Speech]

by Sue Freiburger

When I look at Sean, it is hard to believe how far we have come in the past six years. He has grown in so many ways and achieved so much more than we had ever hoped for.

I want to share our story with the parents here with young children with apraxia. Sean’s apraxia was so severe that after a year of speech therapy thru early intervention, the only sound we had was “eh”. We discovered CASANA when Sean was around two and a half years old and began really aggressively pursuing intensive specialized therapy. We came to Pittsburgh to have Dave Hammer evaluate Sean and confirm the diagnosis of apraxia. My expectation was that we would leave with a treatment plan and a new direction. I was very hopeful that this would be our turning point.

After a two day evaluation, Dave sat down with us to review his results. The results were not good. Dave said that he was unable to stimulate any speech production from Sean and that at best, he could confirm a suspected severe case of childhood apraxia of speech, with a suspected underlying genetic condition. His prognosis of Sean every becoming a verbal communicator was poor. I held back my tears as I felt my world collapse beneath me. If an expert like Dave didn’t think that Sean was likely to ever be able to talk, where would we go from here?

As we got into out car, the tears started to flow. I knew that I had to pull myself together before we got back to the hotel room where my mom waited with our other two children. Eric had spotted a garden center across from the speech therapy center and thought that could be a diversion for both me and my mother. He suggested I pick out a special plant for her to thank her for coming to Pittsburgh and helping us out during Sean’s evaluation. I was drawn to a small lily plant that was very fragrant. I could explain my red eyes away by saying the flowers had aggravated my allergies...

My mother took the plant home to NY and planted it in a special spot in her front garden. We took Sean back to VA and began our search for a speech therapist who could offer us the intensive specialized therapy that Sean needed. We also began to investigate augmentive communication devices.

It was a long year, with many visits to specialists, long battles with the school system, and about nine hours of private therapies a week, but the following summer, Sean was successfully communicating using his Dynavox Augmentive Communicative Device. That June got a call from my mother telling me that the “Mr. Hammer” lily was in full bloom and it was spectacular.

Due my husband’s job transfer, we ended up moving to Pittsburgh that summer. Unfortunately, there was a long waiting list to get into speech therapy with Dave Hammer, but we kept plugging away. Sean slowly began to find his voice, starting with "Polamalu" when he was around four and half years old and is now quite the talker (and still a huge Steelers fan!)! After almost a year, Sean was able to start therapy with Dave Hammer and Dave couldn’t believe that this was the same little boy he had evaluated almost two years ago. We worked together as a team with Mr. Hammer and Sean continued to thrive. The “Mr. Hammer” lily is around eight feet tall and continues to remind us how far we have come from the day when we felt that all hope was gone.

Over the years, I have spent many hours in my garden, using it as my therapy to work out my frustrations with the long slow process of helping Sean to find his voice. Many of my plants have been watered with tears, but each year, they come back stronger and bigger than ever. Dave Hammer sometimes wonders if he should have given us such a grim prognosis at the evaluation, but we both know that it was a fair evaluation. Without his honest assessment, we never would have know just how hard we would have to work to help Sean find his voice. We would have accepted the school systems assessment that a three year old couldn’t use a high-tech augmentative communication device. We would have waited and waited for the words to come. The path we had to take was a difficult one, the work was hard, but Dave has given us a gift that we can never repay. Sean now has a voice and I have an enormous garden! We dug up a piece of that “Mr. Hammer” lily and split it – a piece of it to grow in my garden and a piece for Mr. Hammer to plant in his yard.

I collected seeds from the flowers in my garden to share with the other parents today. Scatter these in your garden to remind you that from small seeds, beautiful and wonderful things can grow. Let your tears flow on the days when things are tough, but hold on to hope.