December 26, 2002
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Mary McMullen, left, is relying friends like Diantha Rau to assist her recovery from two aneurysms.

Learning how to speak again

Mary McMullen has a message for us in this holiday season. While she honors Christmas, she wants us to honor every other day too, to know that even the most ordinary day holds more miracles than we can imagine.

“It’s Christmas today. It really is the best. Not Dec. 25,” she said in an interview last week.

Making her way back from two life-threatening aneurysms, McMullen is learning to speak again. And while her words get tangled sometimes and she struggles to communicate her meaning, she has no trouble communicating her passion for life.

“Mary is a gift of joy to the world,” said McMullen’s good friend Diantha Rau. “She’s just so grateful to be alive.”

A Yellow Springs resident from 1975 to 1995, McMullen recently moved back to the village to be around friends, including Rau and Janet Jenks Ward, who are helping in her recovery. At one time, McMullen worked in the area as a mental health therapist until she moved to Philadelphia to care for her ailing mother. There, she worked as a therapist and social worker until one day last February.

“It was a good one,” McMullen said of that day. “Then ouch! That was it.”

A blood vessel burst in McMullen’s brain, causing her to become confused and have difficulty speaking. A nurse at the mental health agency where McMullen worked called 911, and made a decision that McMullen believes saved her life — to send her to Temple University Hospital rather than the closest hospital, thus providing her with more up-to-date facilities and staff expertise.

Tests revealed McMullen had a second aneurysm, and doctors performed surgery the following day. The prognosis looked bleak — McMullen was given only a 5 percent chance of surviving surgery, Rau said, and, because the aneurysms were located in the speech center of her brain, a far smaller chance of ever speaking again.

But miracles happen.

For instance, a few weeks ago McMullen surprised Rau by pulling out a young adult novel and reading the words out loud.

“I sat there and cried,” Rau said of the moment when she saw her friend, a lifelong poet, once again enjoying the sound of language.

And McMullen has continued to progress. Just last week she revealed that she was now reading a collection of nature essays, including one about loggerhead turtles.

“Turtle. Thousands and thousands. McMullen said showing a visitor the book. “You don’t know. I can read!”

McMullen spent six weeks in the hospital following her surgery, then participated in rehabilitation therapy. While family members supported her initially, they later seemed to lose interest, said McMullen, who felt alone and unable to progress without people to talk to. At that point, she wrote a letter to Rau, asking if her friend would help her move back to Yellow Springs.

Last week, Rau held up the letter and read it out loud to her friend. The two laughed together at the tangled sentences. But, Rau pointed out, McMullen did get her point across.

“There were themes,” Rau said. “I figured it out.”

After Rau located an apartment in Yellow Springs for McMullen, Janet and Gene Ward drove a truck to Philadelphia to pick up McMullen and her belongings. McMullen said she talked all the way back to Ohio.

Since that time, McMullen has filled her days with cooking, driving her car in the country and pushing herself to get better. An insurance snafu has blocked rehabilitation efforts here, Rau said, adding that she believes the problem is being worked out and McMullen will begin more rehabilitation soon.

But McMullen improves steadily anyway, said Rau, at least partly because she interacts with people here. McMullen said she enjoys walking downtown and chatting with friends or acquaintances, and if she encounters someone who doesn’t know of her aphasia — the technical term for difficulty in using language —she’ll pull out a card that explains it.

ñOr she might just explain in her cheerful, streamlined way. “I say, look everybody, brain!” she said.

“We take verbal communication for granted and think if someone isn’t saying the words, they’re not thinking right,” Rau said. “But Mary is very cognizant. You might think she’s spacing out, but she’s not. And she’s clever. If she can’t get her point across directly, she’ll search for another angle.”

Most likely, she’ll find it. While some might get depressed living with such speech difficulties, McMullen weighs the frustration of not being able to speak as she would like with not living at all, and knows that, following her brush with death, she came out the winner.

“Today,” she said, pointing to the blue sky outside her window. “Look out window. Pretty today. It’s today, it really is. Christmas, not Dec. 25. It’s today.”

—Diane Chiddister