Out of the Silence
How two alums dealt with devastating trauma.
By Keith Davis
Our voices are more than air vibrating against our vocal cords. Our voices broadcast who we are. So what happens when someone loses her voice?
“You become a stranger in a strange land,” says Barbara Newborn ’73, whose speaking ability was temporarily taken away by a stroke at age 21. “It’s catastrophic,” says Michaela Bushey ’11, who was deprived of her star-quality singing voice by a diving accident at age 19.
Along with their voices went their plans. Instead of teaching English and speech, Newborn spent the months after graduation trying to find the words she needed to ask her mother for ice cream. A vocal performance major, Bushey spent the summer of what was to be her senior year focusing on breathing without a ventilator, not finalizing graduation plans.
Newborn’s journey back from her land of isolation began in 1973. She now teaches yoga full time in Tampa. Bushey, in a wheelchair since her accident in 2010, is considering teaching music, studying to be a rehabilitation counselor, becoming a language interpreter, or maybe one day singing again.
What propels the two women forward is a voice only they can hear. Newborn calls it “the quiet place within yourself.” Bushey names it “attitude and determination.” The voices these two alums heed are beyond words; their stories, which follow, aren’t.
“How does a brain-damaged person learn to speak, read, write, and listen?”
Barbara Newborn's Story
In June 1973, three weeks after graduating from IC with a degree in speech, Barbara Newborn, a recently engaged 21-year-old who was getting ready to embark on a teaching career, bent over in her Ithaca apartment to pull off her left sandal. Suddenly, she says she felt herself spinning, in slow motion, toward the bottom of a well. She heard her head hit the floor.
Newborn chronicled what happened in the following hours, weeks, and months in her 1997 book, Return to Ithaca. For starters, a neurologist at Elmira’s Arnot Ogden Medical Center confirmed what Ithaca EMTs and emergency room physicians suspected: a clot in Newborn’s carotid artery had blocked the blood flow to her brain. The freshly minted college graduate had suffered a stroke. Soon Newborn found herself being interviewed by “the people in white.”
“The world became smaller and frightening,” she said. “The medical people wanted words out of me, and every time I tried to speak, nonsense sounds slurred in my mouth. The doctors and nurses stared at me in disbelief. People didn’t understand me anymore.”
Equally as devastating: Newborn didn’t understand herself.
“I’m right-handed, and the stroke totally paralyzed my right side,” she said. “I couldn’t hold a pencil or turn on the shower, let alone dance or play the piano. In the mirror was a stranger with one side of her face frozen, like a theater mask. But I wasn’t just cut off from myself physically. The stroke emptied me of words and thoughts. I couldn’t think in sentences and could barely hold simple images in my mind before they faded away.”
Newborn returned to her parents’ home in Altoona, Pennsylvania. The months of physical, occupational, and speech therapy that followed were worse than starting all over as a two-year-old. Not only could her damaged body not summon the reflexes to unscrew the cap on a toothpaste tube, Newborn’s damaged brain couldn’t process the instructions for that procedure. Even watching television was beyond her because to understand punch lines, she had to remember the set-up lines, and she couldn’t.
“I could live with a feeble walk or a paralyzed limb,” she said. “But it was hard for me to exist without communication. How does a brain-damaged person learn to speak, read, write, and listen?”
Working It Out
Newborn describes the mental gymnastics she had to go through just to vocalize a simple statement. First, she had to sort out the sensory stimuli, then she had to form the ideas with the proper sequencing, and then she had to search for the correct phrase to describe the idea before finally choosing the precise words and pronouncing them correctly.
“My aphasia was more than a physical problem,” she wrote in her book. “It involved my whole social and emotional being... Society chose not to understand me any longer and was too impatient to even try. I had to tolerate constant interruptions, and people not understanding what I was saying, or just ignoring me. With my past forgotten, I had to take this uncharted journey alone, redefining myself through the chaos of aphasia.”
After five months of repeated therapies — and the breakup of her engagement — Newborn’s occupational therapist poured talcum powder on a tabletop, two inches from Newborn’s right arm, and told her to move the inert limb toward the powder. On that day, like all the others, the arm wouldn’t budge.
“My body got tense, as always, but that time I decided to find a way to calm down. Instinctively, I took one long breath and shut my eyes. I’d never studied meditation, but concentrating totally on the task, I found myself focused on the electric current running through my flaccid arm. My mind connected with my arm’s energy, and my arm started to move.”
With the spell of paralysis broken, Newborn’s horizons began to reopen.
“The doctors, therapists, and my loving parents were my rescuers, but they were also my imprisoners,” Newborn said. “The stroke had emptied me of my identity, and I was becoming part of whatever environment I was in. I needed to take responsibility for my own wellness.”
The place to do that was the only place she’d lived as an adult: Ithaca.
“It was a huge risk, and my parents were against it,” she said. “‘How will you find good therapists?’
‘How will you support yourself?’ Very good questions, but if I didn’t take the risk I knew I should, I’d never heal all the way.”
So, with a brain she described as “a leaky sieve,” Newborn returned to Ithaca, found an apartment and a part-time job, retook her driver’s test, and audited graduate courses at Cornell — an adventure because she had trouble remembering where the letters were on a keyboard. Instead of typing her papers, she wrote them longhand, often 10 to 15 times, each subsequent draft having fewer spelling and grammar errors and fewer foggy concepts
“It was like writing something on a blackboard 200 times,” she said. “Slowly, slowly, things start to sink in.”
Also in Ithaca, Newborn introduced herself to yoga.
“Being partially paralyzed kept me from dancing,” she said. “But it didn’t keep me from doing yoga. I was the worst one in the class, so the instructor gave me private lessons. She taught me how to move in ways I hadn’t thought possible. She also taught me how to breathe.”
Learning to control her breath reminded Newborn of that contemplative moment when she’d first moved her paralyzed arm.
“Yoga and meditation led me to quiet places within myself, and there I found recovery. For a disabled person, it can be defeating trying to be ‘your old self.’ My rational mind had been damaged, but that opened the door to my heart.”
Newborn also came to the epiphany that her voice did not define who she was.
“We think we are our words, defending our arguments no matter what the cost,” she wrote in her book. “But nothing is further from the truth. If we were born into a world where silence prevailed, we would discover that our spiritual journey is connecting our minds with our hearts.”
After leaving Ithaca in 1974, Newborn earned two master’s degrees, founded a camp for head trauma victims, pioneered programs for young adults with traumatic brain injuries, and served as spokesperson for Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center’s National Stroke Medical Education Institute. During it all, she practiced yoga and began teaching it part-time. Twelve years ago she and her husband moved to Tampa and established Gardens of Yoga, where they teach full time.
Knowing What's Important
“Growing up, I was the girl who had everything — loving family, good looks, athletic gifts, and popularity,” Newborn said. “Now, 40 years later, even with a hand that’s slightly paralyzed and speech that sometimes slurs, I still have everything, but now my focus isn’t only on the outside person.
Almost 70 percent of my yoga students have physical challenges, and by helping them move and meditate and focus on their breath, I’m showing them how to integrate the self within with the self without. I would have loved to have taught English and speech, but we’re more than just our words and our language. We have to balance our rational minds with intuition and compassion and give ourselves in service. Right now, I’m doing what’s right for me. I have absolutely no regrets.”
Michaela Bushey's Story
“I was completely dependent on everybody for everything.”
By the summer before her senior year at IC, 19-year-old Michaela Bushey had built a long list of accomplishments. Three years earlier, in 2007, she’d graduated from high school as class salutatorian, then made dean’s list every semester at IC, and was inducted into the academic honor society Phi Kappa Phi. Majoring in vocal performance and music education, she’d sung lead roles in high school and Ithaca College Theatre productions, and played piano and sang at Brooktondale Baptist Church in Ithaca and the Independent Baptist Church near her home in AuSable, New York. In the winter of what was to have been her senior year, she added to that list by wiggling her right toe.
“I was thrilled,” said Angela, Michaela Bushey’s mother. “It was a huge step.”
Nine months earlier, July 4, 2010, Bushey, a former lifeguard, dove into an above-ground swimming pool in her boyfriend Kyle Devins’s backyard. She hit her head on the bottom. When she floated to the surface, she could blink and breathe, but everything below her neck was numb.
“I’d done a million shallow-water dives,” she said. “What was different about that one, I’ll never know.”
She also didn’t know why her arms and legs wouldn’t move. It would take Kyle ’11, an athletic training major at IC, to stabilize his high school sweetheart; an ambulance ride to an acute care hospital in Plattsburgh, New York; and surgery at the university medical center in Burlington, Vermont, to be certain that Bushey had indeed fractured two vertebrae in her neck. With that diagnosis, she became one of the quarter million Americans suffering from a spinal cord injury.
“One moment I was a normal college student whose biggest worry was getting a D on an exam,” Bushey said. “A split second later, I was someone completely dependent on everybody for everything. It took my family and Kyle and me months to understand what was going on and how we were going to live with it.”
Two weeks after the accident, Bushey was airlifted to Atlanta’s Shepherd Center for rehabilitation.
“That summer was the absolute low point,” she said. “That’s when it was dawning that there’s no quick fix for spinal cord injuries. What comes back comes back slowly, if at all. It was catastrophic.”
When she left Atlanta for home in late September, she’d regained some movement in her right bicep. Everything else, including her vocal cords and the abdominal and rib muscles required for breath control and voice projection, remained paralyzed. For an accomplished singer and pianist, the situation was indeed “catastrophic.”
“I felt completely defeated,” she said. “My life was over. I’m just going to live in my wheelchair and that’s that.”
But in January she started another rehab program, this one at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.
“They turned everything around for me,” Bushey said. “At some places, the message is, what you don’t get back in the first six months, you’re never going to get back, and you’ll just have to adapt. But at Kennedy Krieger, they tell you that you can always recover sensation and function and independence. Always. At Kenney Krieger, they give you hope.”
In addition to moving her toe at Kennedy Krieger, Bushey also regained trace movements in her fingers. She was a long way from playing the piano, but she’d tallied those two accomplishments. She wanted more.
“I really wanted to get back to Ithaca and get my degree,” she said. “It seemed like a million-to-one shot because I needed 24-hour care. I knew I couldn’t complete the major in performance, but I still wanted to get a teaching degree. I only needed 14 credits.”
Impossible Made Possible
In mid-February, some 20 IC administrators and faculty gathered to discuss the situation. As a result, walls were knocked down — literally. Rooms in a residence hall were converted into an accessible living space for Bushey and her mother. Parking, dining, enrollment, and financial arrangements were also worked out. When her classmates returned after spring break 2011, so did Bushey.
“A lot of IC people did a lot of things to make that happen,” she said. “I can’t begin to express my gratitude to all the people at the College for opening the way for me to come back and finish my degree. I’m especially grateful to Keith Kaiser [interim associate dean of the School of Music] for playing such a key role in that effort. I never in a million years thought coming back to school would be possible.”
Able to move her arms but not her hands or legs, Bushey continued physical and occupational therapy. She also took four courses, sang in the choir at the Commencement Eve Concert, and completed a seven-week student-teaching stint this fall. She’s on course to receive her K–12 teaching certificate this December.
Bushey hesitates to mention the people who have supported her for fear of leaving someone out, but she and her family are grateful for the benefit concert by Mu Phi Epsilon, a service-oriented music fraternity; the “lift-a-thon” fund-raiser sponsored by Kyle and his fellow IC track team members; the people in her local community who established a trust fund to cover medical expenses; and the fellow parishioners of her local church who rebuilt the Busheys’ front porch so it could support the weight of a power wheelchair.
“My plan right now is to have a good experience student teaching,” Bushey said this fall. “After that, I’m not really sure. I could be a music teacher — I’ve gotten a lot of faculty support for that. I might go to grad school to be a rehabilitation counselor and help other injured people find their way back. Or, I’ve always had a knack for languages. Maybe I could be an interpreter.”
“And maybe she could get her voice back,” said Kaiser. “Some experts said she wouldn’t get this far.”
“My faith in God has been a huge part of my emotional and physical healing,” Bushey said. “My faith is what has allowed me to come this far. It’s the most powerful thing I’ve got.”
Rehabilitation: A Winding, Uphill Grind
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? The same way you travel the road to recovery: practice, practice, practice.
“Our brains are [like] plastic, meaning the function and structure of our brains can change depending on our experiences with our environment. That means brains have the potential to recover from even severely traumatic injuries,” said Yvonne Rogalski, assistant professor of speech-language pathology and audiology at IC, whose specialty is working with adults who have experienced strokes or similar neurogenic disorders. “People may not recover to the level at which they were operating before the event, but they are capable of coming back and doing some remarkable things.”
And that goes for language, too, Rogalski says. People who have lost their reading, writing, or speaking abilities through stroke or some other trauma can make some amazing progress toward regaining grammar, comprehension, and word-finding abilities.
“That’s the power of neuroplasticity,” she says.
Unfortunately, the human brain and its network of 100 billion neurons don’t rebound automatically.
“Rehabilitation is about repetition, practice and perseverance in a task that may be difficult, and it’s frustrating,” Rogalski said. “Your muscles don’t go where you want them to. The word you’re looking for just can’t be found, or if it can, it comes out sounding different from what you expected. There’s this human tendency to give up when we’re frustrated, but rehab is about breaking through that frustration and persisting in doing the things you want most to avoid.”
The way to keep trying, said Rogalski, is to have attainable goals.
“There is still a belief that whatever you haven’t recovered after a certain period of time will never be recovered, but I would never tell a client that. For me, it’s all about understanding that our brains have the potential to adapt. They may not change as much as we’d like, but people who have suffered serious trauma can improve and make gains.”
The location and extent of the neural damage and the person’s age do factor into the healing process, but all other things being equal, motivation is the key.
“As the therapist, I’m the outward force trying to break though that barrier of frustration,” Rogalski said. “I individualize the therapy to fit the client’s goals. I provide the structure and educate my clients about their brains’ remarkable ability to adapt, but I can’t do the work. The force within the client accomplishes that. That’s why I find Barbara’s and Michaela’s stories so remarkable. They are highly motivated, and they haven’t given up.”