October 26, 2020

Stroke survivor with aphasia is able to vote, thanks to his speech-language pathologist

Sady Sayago believes that voting is an important part of being a citizen; he worked with Jennifer Barry to make sure he could cast his ballot.

Sady Sayago is proud to participate in this year’s election. Photo by Keli Lawrence

Sady Sayago has worn many hats in his life — among them immigrant, student, director of sales for an international medical company and stroke survivor — but the one hat he was determined to wear this year was voter.

Sayago has been treated at the Pi Beta Phi Rehabilitation Institute (PBPRI) at Vanderbilt for four years for the aphasia he has as the result of a 2015 stroke. Aphasia is a condition caused by damage to the language centers in the brain. It can make language difficult to process, so people with aphasia have a hard time understanding others and expressing themselves.

Participating in voting isn’t always easy for people with aphasia, but he was determined to exercise his right as a citizen.

Sayago’s speech-language pathologist (SLP), Jennifer Barry, MS, CCC-SLP, has worked with him to improve his communication skills and to find augmentative and alternative paths to communication when he can’t read or find the right words.

This year there have been a couple of very important civic duties that Barry has helped Sayago with: filling out his census form and voting.

Sady Sayago and his speech-language pathologist Jennifer Barry worked together so that Sayago could exercise his right to vote. Photo by Keli Lawrence

Barry helped Sayago navigate the process of voting by mail. She made sure he was able to understand and complete his ballot with his choices. With a witness present to fulfill ethical and legal guidelines, she read aloud each section of the ballot and verified his understanding of the content.

“It’s clear that he sees voting as a critical part of being a citizen,” Barry said.

Despite his aphasia, Sayago’s passion for being an active part of the political process is evident. “Important! Power!” he said. “Stand up…fight…stop violence. Stop climate change.”

Sayago grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, and immigrated to the United States as a young man to attend Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, and became an American citizen. After receiving an MBA from Capella University, he started his career in business. In 2015, he was living in Germany and working as director of sales in Europe for Karl Storz Company, when he had a stroke.

He has some ideas about some contributing factors.

“Many years smoking,” he said. “Stress, bills, money, money, money, work, work, work.”

After two weeks in a coma and a craniectomy to ease the swelling in his brain, he began physical rehabilitation. Eventually, he returned to the United States and moved to Nashville to be closer to his sister. At that point, he began his language rehabilitation journey at Vanderbilt.

Barry has helped Sayago find and learn a variety of phone and computer apps that can assist him when spoken language isn’t enough. As a result, he works his phone like a magician, shuffling quickly through photos and websites to communicate his message. Most recently the two have been experimenting with an app that can read documents to him.

In addition to individual therapy with Barry, Sayago participates in the Aphasia Group of Middle Tennessee, which meets at PBPRI. Speech-language pathologist and operations manager of PBPRI Dominique Herrington is the Program Director for the group and Sayago has found a second family in this close community.

“Funny and fun, reading books, talking a lot,” he said of the group.

“Language intervention is most effective when you use the patient’s own life values and interests as your therapy tools. Communication is important for life participation and voting is an important participation goal for Sady,” Barry said.

The Pi Beta Phi Rehabilitation Institute is a part of the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center for Otolaryngology and Communication Sciences. It is a comprehensive outpatient treatment facility for individuals who have experienced brain injury, stroke, or progressive neurological disorders such as ALS or Parkinson Disease. The speech pathologists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists at PBPRI work to increase patients’ independence, function, and quality of life.