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Howard Blatt, co-founder of an aphasia support group, dies at 88

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you know somebody who's had a stroke and now has trouble speaking or reading or writing, they probably have aphasia. That's a brain disorder that robs people of their ability to communicate. Howard Blatt co-founded an aphasia support group that many people say rescued them from isolation. He died last month. NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer has this remembrance.

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: Four decades ago, Howie Blatt was a middle-aged married father working as an electrical engineer at MIT when he collapsed in his kitchen. A stroke - years later, when he was in his 80s, I interviewed him and his wife, Judy. Here's how they described what that catastrophe did to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HOWARD BLATT: No talking.

JUDY: Right.

BLATT: Zip. My speech was zip.

PFEIFFER: Almost total loss of speech plus a paralyzed leg and arm - he was 48 years old. With the help of adaptive devices, he accomplished more than his family thought possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JUDY: He built a table. He built closets. He built cabinets. He figured out how he could do it with one hand.

PFEIFFER: He drove cross-country by himself, taking photos along the way, and taught himself to read and write again, although his speech never fully returned. But the early 1980s were a lonely time to have aphasia. There's more awareness of it now, but back then, a support network was virtually nonexistent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JUDY: Yeah, there was nothing when Howie had the stroke.

BLATT: No. Zip.

JUDY: Boy, we would have appreciated having something, and we were so young. Just to know anybody else who...

BLATT: Yeah.

JUDY: And there was nothing.

PFEIFFER: So with his wife and a small group of other people, Blatt helped create what may be one of his greatest accomplishments...

(CROSSTALK)

PFEIFFER: ...The Aphasia Community Group.

(CROSSTALK)

PFEIFFER: It's now one of the country's oldest and largest aphasia support groups. It's based at Boston University and offers a huge range of services and activities plus companionship for people whose speech was stolen by strokes and brain injuries. One woman tells the group, she's here with her brother because he wanted to come, but she does all the speaking.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He doesn't talk much because his words don't come out right. He'll start to say something and then just end up with - never mind. Seems to remember all the swear words...

(LAUGHTER)

PFEIFFER: It's a place for levity amid a lot of personal tragedy. And Blatt rarely missed a monthly meeting until he passed away last month at age 88.

MARY BORELLI: Oh, I am so sad for Howie. He died.

PFEIFFER: Mary Borelli was an elementary school principal when she had a stroke at age 47. She's now 61 and says the group has been psychologically lifesaving for her and many others.

BORELLI: We get together and laugh and cry. And I was like, oh, my God, here are people that understand what I am going through.

JERRY KAPLAN: It's sort of like being in a prison cell...

PFEIFFER: That's speech language pathologist Jerry Kaplan, describing aphasia.

KAPLAN: ...Because you have lost part or a significant part of one's ability to connect with other people through human language.

PFEIFFER: Kaplan has led the Aphasia Community Group since its founding in 1990. He estimates at least 10,000 people have come to its meetings.

KAPLAN: They feel less isolated because aphasia is so isolating. Newcomers who come to the group invariably say to me, I thought I was the only one.

PFEIFFER: Howie Blatt helped other people with aphasia realize they weren't alone. Here he is again with his wife, Judy, in 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JUDY: See, that's the beauty of having...

BLATT: Yeah.

JUDY: ... A group. Everybody understands.

BLATT: Lots of people. Really lots of lessons (ph).

JUDY: Right. Everybody understands.

PFEIFFER: Howie Blatt lived and thrived for 40 years with aphasia. Sacha Pfeiffer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAMS CASINO'S "TREETOP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.