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Opera singer struggles with speech after stroke

By Eric Jordan, Special to CNN
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Wed May 14, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eric Jordan, a bass with the Metropolitan Opera, suffered a stroke in 2012
  • The stroke primarily affected the area of his brain responsible for speech production
  • Jordan says he has better verbal fluency singing than he does when speaking
  • The opera singer says he has learned to communicate in his own way

Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle -- injury, illness or other hardship -- they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. This week we meet Eric Jordan, a bass with the Metropolitan Opera, who had a stroke that at first robbed him of his ability to speak.

(CNN) -- Imagine this: You're at the top of your game professionally. You have a loving spouse, two dear children and a developing relationship with your community. Then God pushes a serious pause button on your life.

My life-threatening stroke occurred early on September 20, 2012. When I finally came to in the intensive care unit after receiving a mechanical thrombectomy device, I saw my wife. We cried together. Then the attending nurse drew the curtain and asked me if I knew what day it was.

I shook my head, but my tongue was too knotted to speak clearly. Later on, the subject of speech therapy came up. I valiantly thought, "I am a professional singer. How much more difficult can speaking be?"

I canceled my upcoming work at the Utah Opera and the Opera Cowboy in Alabama, and started home to recover.

Luckily for me, the stroke primarily affected the Broca area of my brain, which is responsible for speech production. I say "luckily" because I can now sing with better verbal fluency than I can speak.

I've learned how to communicate in my own way. Sometimes I order food in a singsong voice. Other times, I point at the menu and wait for confirmation by the waitstaff, and nod this aging head. Hey, if a man is hungry, he needs to eat.

I've also learned to speak up for myself. Before my stroke, I lived and worked in fear because opera can be a very bloodthirsty business. I will never forget when one of my directors told me, "You're too nice!" After he said that, I bowed my head sheepishly and waited for his next direction.

But in my earliest recovery phase, I vowed that I would never let fear seep back into my life and stop me from becoming a better husband and father. After all, singing opera is sustained, controlled yelling. My speech pathologist taught me graciously that speaking loudly, slowly and in short sentences is a good way to speak through my troubles. Stroke survivors can take their cues from the stage and "Live it out loud!"

Most of all, I've learned that patience is a virtue. I have moderate-to-serious aphasia (which makes it hard for me to read, write or say what I mean) and apraxia (the inability to execute purposeful movements), so it takes patience for me to make any sense. Basically, my mind needs to slow down enough to let my tongue catch up.

(My lovely wife would probably say, "Aphasia, apraxia, hmmph! You never did make sense, and you never will!")

I thank God every day that my stroke occurred in New York, where I was close to my family, my friends and Columbia University Medical Center. How will I recover well enough to function again in society? My quick answer is: with faith, family, friends, patience and a good sense of humor.

Please share my story in honor of Stroke Awareness Month.

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