When his Words Didn’t Make any Sense: Living With Aphasia

When his Words Didn’t Make any Sense: Living With Aphasia

She thought he was cheating and not communicating with her. He was just losing his memory. Learn more about the brain disease that robs people of language and speech.

Erni and Daniel Connolly had only been married a year, when Daniel began pulling away from their relationship.

“He started coming home late at night from work,” Erni says. “He wasn’t intimate with me anymore. He stopped communicating. We went through marriage counseling for a couple of years, and even then, he would just say, ‘Yeah, I agree with her,’ on every topic brought up. I really felt like he was having an affair.”

Despite counseling, Erni couldn’t put her finger on what was wrong, but after a couple of years, Daniel’s father and brother also began noticing changes in Daniel’s personality. They encouraged Erni to take him to a doctor.

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“The doctor gave Daniel a verbal test, and Daniel couldn’t even repeat what he said,” Erni remembers. “Then they did an MRI. That’s when they found a dot on the left side of his brain. Turns out his brain was shrinking.”

Having a diagnosis was a relief, even for Daniel. He knew there was a problem; he simply couldn’t articulate it. “When he saw the picture of his brain, he said, ‘my brain has an error! That’s what’s been wrong with me!’ Erni recalls.

The doctor sent Daniel to the Memory and Aging Center at Keck Medicine of USC, where Helena Chang Chui, MD, chair and professor of neurology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and an internationally recognized Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment expert, confirmed her suspicions: Daniel suffered from aphasia, an uncommon brain condition that affects a patient’s speech and understanding of language, and also dementia, a clinical syndrome of progressive loss of thinking, memory and other cognitive abilities impairing daily function.


Daniel with Helena Chiu, MD

“Aphasia is a neurodegeneration that causes a part of the brain to slowly deteriorate and die,” says Chui. “It’s the area which is key to our awareness, our experience, our decisions and who we are. There is no surgery for this type of condition, no medications or treatment,” she explains. “Unlike Alzheimer’s, which affects the memory areas of the brain and short-term memory loss, Daniel’s aphasia affected his memory for words.”

Aphasia is a symptom associated with a neurodegenerative disease, and like other neurological conditions, aphasia is frustrating and complex.

In some ways, Daniel seemed normal. In the early stages of his disease, he continued working; it just took him longer to get things finished. “That’s why he was staying longer at the office,” Erni says.

He had no trouble driving and remembering where he was going, even though he couldn’t communicate complex thoughts. However, as Daniel’s condition progressed, his inability to communicate interfered with normal daily activities. One day, he took a drive to a nearby canyon, even though Erni had told him to stay away because of the wildfires weeks earlier.

“A highway patrolman was stationed at the entry to the canyon, allowing only residents entry. However, Dan didn’t think it pertained to him, because he went there all the time, so he just went around the cones and proceeded up the canyon,” Erni says. “When he was pulled over, he couldn’t understand the officer’s instructions to turn off the car and get out. Finally, the officer helped him turn off the car and had to remove him forcibly out of the vehicle. Daniel hit his head and ended up at the hospital. That’s when we knew the aphasia worsened.”

“Daniel has a slow, progressive dementia, which started by affecting language (aphasia), and is called primary progressive aphasia,” Chui explains. Six years after his diagnosis, Daniel now needs full-time care. Still, knowing what his condition is has helped Erni cope. “A diagnosis of aphasia doesn’t prevent the disease or make it treatable, but at least now I know what’s going on,” she says. “The way he behaved before now makes sense.”

She adds, “People like my husband are often misdiagnosed, and that puts a lot of stress on their families. It’s frightening for someone’s personality to change and to stop communicating. Life becomes a roller coaster. But once I found out what was wrong, our lives got so much better.”


Erni and Daniel

It can be difficult to understand how Erni was able to handle such a heartbreaking situation, but her love for her husband Daniel Connolly has overcome the test of time. She has written a book, His Brain Won’t Reboot, of their journey.

For more than 30 years, Keck Medicine physicians and researchers have made major contributions to understanding Alzheimer’s disease, vascular brain injury and memory problems.

If you are in the Los Angeles area and are looking for exceptional care from some of the top Alzheimer’s specialists in the world, be sure to schedule an appointment, by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting http://neuro.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/.