A computer that teaches how to communicate--all over again

Publication Date: Wednesday Sep 20, 1995

HEALTH CARE: A computer that teaches how to communicate--all over again

New computer at Palo Alto-based clinic helps patients suffering from aphasia

by Atoosa Savarnejad

Traditional speech therapy for stroke victims suffering from aphasia usually involves one-on-one interaction between a speech therapist and a patient. But Tolfa Corp. is taking traditional speech therapy one technological step further.

The Mountain View-based medical company has come up with Lingraphica, a portable computer device with a 2,000-word memory which uses the aid of graphics to help aphasic patients--those who have lost the power to use or understand words. The computer helps the patients understand what words mean as well as the correct pronunciation.

Coupled with a speech therapist, Lingraphica becomes a more complete method of treating aphasic patients. This method is used in a specialized clinic, LingraphiCare, which opened this May in Palo Alto.

Lingraphica is the only FDA regulated device used as a communications prosthesis, said John Brink, president and CEO of Tolfa Corporation.

"LingraphiCare is now a MediCare Certified Rehabilitation Agency where professional people provide speech services," Brink said. "This is the first product ever clinically designed for aphasic patients."

Aphasia is a language disorder most commonly brought on by a stroke where there is damage to the brain. People suffering from aphasia know what they want to say but don't know how to form the words to say it, said Veronica Harris, a speech pathologist and administrator of LingraphiCare.

More than 650,000 people nationwide suffer from aphasia as a result of brain damage, Brink said.

In addition, every year, some 100,000 more people are able to survive strokes. But of those 65 percent become aphasic to some degree, Brink added.

"As a company, we were pretty sure that there was a market large enough to be served and needed what we had to offer," Brink said.

"What we found out with our device, Lingraphica, was that the patients seemed to know how to use it and respond to its opportunity," Brink said.

It took 15 years of research before the product could be developed. Richard Steele, manager at Tolfa, who worked six years as principal investigator at Rehabilitation Research and Development Center at Stanford, helped develop the technology and conducted clinical studies to demonstrate the effectiveness to assist aphasic patients to communicate better.

Tolfa scientists spend three more years developing the product to its present state. Lingraphica has only been sold commercially for the last two years.

After two years, they were encouraged to open up the first Lingraphi- Care clinic in Palo Alto.

Brink said he would like to open up several clinics around the Bay Area and many more across the country and Canada and plans to open up clinics on a regular basis for the next few years.

Recruiting patients for the clinic, however, takes some effort.

"We talk to doctors and other speech pathologists and social workers. We also advertise in the newspaper," Harris said.

"Primarily we are looking at two different populations: those who had their stroke a few years ago and those who've just had their stroke and are ready to go home," she said.

LingraphiCare provides free screening for anyone who is interested. Speech pathologists then decide whether or not that person is a good candidate for the program.

"We have a fresh and stimulating approach to therapy. Each program is individually developed for each person," Harris said. Furthermore, there is not one but several different therapies for each person, Harris said.

A Lingraphica computer costs $6,450, making it somewhat difficult to be accessible to everyone who needs one.

But what is what makes LingraphiCare therapy stand out above regular therapy is that it allows patients to take one home on loan and work more at home on their own.

"I saw my last therapist for an hour once a week. I did a little bit of work at home, maybe an hour's work," said Annie Riley, a LingraphiCare patient who had a stroke almost two years ago.

"This machine allows me to work as much as I can at home. So my ability has increased a lot with coming here three times a week." Riley said she practices with her borrowed Lingraphica about two hours a night.

"She is getting double and triple therapy because she also works at home," said Wendy Blakemore, a speech therapist at LingraphiCare.

Riley's main problem is getting the money to pay for a Lingraphica of her own.

"Something needs to be done with people having the ability to get these devices so anybody can have them, not just a certain number of people who can afford them," she said. Brink said there are a variety of ways to provide funding for a Lingraphica, either by buying a used one at a reduced price or by having it covered by insurance.

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