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Angie Burda, left, a speech pathologist at the University of Northern Iowa, uses the Name That! app with Cathy Dykeman, of Waterloo in Burda's office in Cedar Falls, Iowa. / Christopher Gannon, The Des Moines Register

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- Cathy Dykeman recognizes the striped animal shown on the virtual flash card in the Name That! application on her tablet. She carefully spells out the word on the brown office table at the University of Northern Iowa's speech communications center with her finger.

Z ... E ... B ...

Despite successfully spelling it, she cannot say it. The area of her brain that controls speech isn't the same since she suffered a stroke in 1998. She stumbles on the word. She gives up.

"Zebra," the voice on the app tells her after she pushes a button.

The 51-year-old Waterloo resident flashes a smile. "I knew that one," she says.

Dykeman has helped test an app developed by Northern Iowa professor and speech pathologist Angie Burda that helps victims of strokes exercise the speech part of the brain as they recover. The application is part of a growing number of technology-related products making life easier for people with speech disabilities, including victims of strokes and those who stutter.

"After people have a stroke, they have difficulty speaking," Burda said. "They know they are looking at a cup or a pencil. But they just can't access that information."

With the app, patients can test the speech parts of their brain at home, instead of having to wait for appointments with a speech therapist.

Dykeman has met with a therapist in an attempt to build her vocabulary since a night in 1998 that changed her life, when she woke up slurring her speech.

As a human resources manager in Minneapolis, Dykeman lived comfortably with her two kittens.

But that changed one night in 1998, when she woke in a daze. She couldn't form any words and garbled her speech.

When she called 911, the dispatcher thought she was drunk.

"I was so mad because I didn't know who I was," she said. "I didn't know what to do."

Doctors told her she had suffered a stroke, which can be caused by blood flow problems or an arterial rupture in the brain.

It often comes with debilitating effects, and Dykeman's stroke included the disorder known as aphasia, which results from damage to the language parts of the brain.

She also lost the ability to use the right side of her body. When doctors told her, she immediately wondered how she would be able to continue working.

"I can't work there anymore, I can't do it," she thought to herself.

She moved in with her mother, who lives in Waterloo, and soon found Burda.

Speech therapists use semantic feature analysis to help stroke victims regain their speech processes. The method puts information in front of people that leads to connections between objects and actions to help them form words.

For example, a therapist could put a picture of a rocking chair in front of a patient and ask what they are used for. The patient will try to make connections and say the word "sit."

Burda wanted to find a way to put that into a mobile application. Thanks to a Northern Iowa program that connects professors from different parts of the school, she found someone to build it in 2011.

"So many people now have smartphones and tablets," she said. "We have 80-year-olds who have iPads. You are providing them the opportunity to improve."

Students from both the computer science and communication sciences and disorders departments developed the application, with Stephen Hughes, the AppsLab manager at the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center at UNI, leading its development.

It joins a growing market of speech therapy applications available in Apple's App Store. The goal is to sell the product to other speech therapists for use with patients, but Name That! remains available for anyone to download for $4.99.

Once Hughes developed a working version of the app, he and Burda sought a patient willing to experiment with it.

That led to one of Burda's more dedicated patients, Dykeman, in late 2012. Dykeman had been working with Burda since 2000. But as much as Burda's guidance helps Dykeman's recovery, the two only meet for two 50-minute sessions a week.

"Usually, pathologists and their patients are only together for a short period of time," Burda said. "They can go home, use this app, and hopefully it leads to improved communication down the road."

Dykeman said she's seen improvement since she started testing the app. Still, she's frustrated when words she has known all her life are no longer easily accessible.

She grits her teeth when asked what it feels like to not be able to access the parts of her brain she needs to find those words.

"It makes me so mad," she said. "I can't speak sometimes. That's what I really don't understand - why I can't speak."

Dykeman has accepted that her full-time job is recovering. A filing job at a Waterloo medical office helped her feel better about herself.

That part of recovery is crucial because Dykeman sometimes feels the hurtful words she hears from cashiers or others who wonder what is wrong with her.

"They say, 'What, are you dumb or weird?'" she said. "But I tell them I had a stroke, and they say 'Oh, OK.'"

Burda said she enjoys watching patients slowly move toward a semblance of their former life. She hopes the application will supplement therapy sessions enough to help reach that goal.

"The idea has always been to augment the relationship between patient and therapist," she said. "This is a long-term process. The application is not going to fix it on its own."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: App helps stroke victims regain their voice

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