Carl McIntyre can’t throw a baseball very well with his left hand, but his six-year-old son, Sawyer, doesn’t really care. He just knows Dad is playing ball with him.
To Sawyer, Dad has always been the way he is today. Sawyer doesn’t remember what happened to his father on September 15, 2005, but it’s a day that Carl will never forget, because it changed his life forever.
Five years ago, Carl was at home with his children— Sawyer, then only 18 months old, and Liza—when he felt his arm and leg grow numb. Angry that he was losing control of his body, and unsure how to recover it, Carl ended up on the floor, trying desperately to crawl to a phone to get help. His children thought Dad, an actor, was just playing.
When Carl’s wife, Elizabeth, and daughter Grace came home, they made a similar assumption: this is just a game. Grace stepped over her dad and continued into the house, and Elizabeth expressed frustration that Carl had not yet put Sawyer to bed. She picked up the phone and threatened to call 911 unless Carl stopped his antics. She dialed “9”, then “1”, then suddenly realized none of this was make-believe.
At 46 years old, Carl had suffered a massive carotid embolic stroke that left him with Broca’s aphasia: difficulty communicating due to damage to the frontal lobe of the brain. Aphasia affects about one million Americans (or about 1 in 250 people) and is more common than Parkinson’s, cerebral palsy, or muscular dystrophy.
Some people with aphasia are hesitant to speak because they are embarrassed by their inability to say what they mean. Progress often depends on the determination of the patient to communicate. Fortunately for the McIntyre family, Carl wasn’t about to give up without a fight.
Before his stroke, Carl had been a very successful actor and salesman, living a happy life with his family in Charlotte, NC. His family remembers he always had a gift for communication. “Everything Carl did involved speech,” Elizabeth said. “Whether he was acting or working sales or doing commercials, his whole life was his voice.”
Carl appeared in movies, on television, and was a featured voiceover artist in commercials. His career saw him take on a wide range of challenging characters, from hard-nosed attorney to family man to jokester. The Closest Thing to Heaven, a 1996 film set in Charlotte, features Carl as Lester, part of an ensemble of Southern characters whose interwoven lives are depicted during the course of a single day.
In a commercial for plasma products, Carl is the likable, sincere guy who makes a viewer listen even if he doesn’t think he’s interested. Today Carl jokes he had a “silver tongue” when convincing people to make a purchase. But immediately after the stroke, Carl’s tongue was no longer his friend. The likable actor and family man was paralyzed on his right side, finding himself unable to speak, read, or write. He even had difficulty understanding others. Carl McIntyre was trapped in his own head.
Through years of extensive speech and physical rehabilitation, Carl fought back to star on the screen once again. Spurred by the generosity of some of Carl’s friends, the short film Aphasia: The Movie was shot in Charlotte and premiered in May 2010. Since that time the film has been selected for five international film festivals and won an award at the Big Bear Lake Film Festival.
Jim Gloster, one of Carl’s best friends and director of Aphasia: The Movie, was at Carl’s side after his sudden medical scare. The effects of the stroke on Carl motivated Gloster to write a role that would allow his friend to return to the craft he loved. Aphasia, shot in only eight days, was produced by a group of Carl’s friends from his years in the film industry and from his career teaching and acting with The Charlotte Shakespeare Company.
A wide array of producers, editors, art directors, grips, and musicians put in long hours (and gave up several days at their nine-to-five jobs) to help Aphasia: The Movie become a reality. Gloster believes the success of the project is due in large measure to Carl’s innate likability. “Most of our budget went to feeding the crew,” Gloster said, “because so many people jumped on board to help out Carl.”
Aphasia: The Movie tracks Carl’s frustration, anger, and determination to get his “voice” back. As a result, the viewer becomes intimately familiar with the challenges of aphasia. People with aphasia commonly struggle with an inability to translate what is in their mind into what is spoken aloud. Words and speech must be relearned, as if the person is returning to kindergarten.
As documented in the film, Elizabeth finds herself tasked with teaching her husband basic words: “tree,” “nose,” “salt”, “yes” and “no.” Roles are suddenly reversed in the McIntyre family: Carl is unable to say words that his three-year-old already knows. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, young daughter Liza sits on her dad’s lap, holding his face while trying to move his mouth to help him say her name. When Carl finally utters “Li—za”, his daughter says, “Good, Daddy! Good!”
Denise Caignon, a speech-language pathologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, serves as a group facilitator for a weekly aphasia discussion group Carl attends in the film. She notes that aphasia affects everyone in different ways: some people find they can still write, others use hand gestures or drawing to communicate. Many rely on spoken key words.
Throughout the film, Carl struggles with long words, sentences, and verbs. He prompts himself by saying “AB” quietly, and then “C-D” loudly when trying to describe discs that carry music. The word “when” absolutely escapes him: it has no associated visual, no picture by which to give Carl a clue. In order to capture the notion of “when”, Carl rattles off a visual list: “Chicken, eggs, rooster, hen…When.” Today he still writes out some words and speaks in short phrases, but his speech is smoother, and less struggle is necessary in articulation of his thoughts.
Carl’s speech pathology sessions, featured in the film, include flash cards with words like “dog” and “flag.” The “f-words” prove especially difficult for Carl, and a scene in which Carl tries to say a particular “f-word” is made humorous by his frustation. Throughout its running time, Aphasia: The Movie illustrates that a sense of humor is essential to the recovery process.
On three occasions during the course of a year, Carl attempts to order a “Frozee” from a drive-through window. After each attempt, he gives up, empty-handed (“Frozee” is one of those challenging“f-words). When Carl finally manages to get the word out, it’s a heartwarming victory, until the drive-through attendant asks, “What flavor? What size?” as drivers behind Carl honk their horns and complain. Aphasia: The Movie compellingly demonstrates the fact that everyday activities often present huge obstacles to people with aphasia.
For Carl, the experience of making the film necessitated he relive some of the worst moments of his life: his stroke and stages of rehabilitation. Carl even had to unlearn “yes” and “no” in order to recapture the experience of confusion. He had to talk the way he had talked prior to rehabilitation—he had to remember the long, frustrating struggles to articulate simple words. As production rolled forward, Gloster found himself amazed by Carl’s ability to get back into the groove of acting, and by his aptitude for making finely tuned adjustments to scenes. In the film, when insisting Elizabeth allow him to drive to a party, Carl says only the words “I drive,” but he says them over and over, each time with a different nuance.
Chuck Bloodsworth, the film’s director of photography, was alarmed by how greatly Carl’s speech improved as the project unfolded. “I guess working ten hours a day is good practice,” Bloodsworth quipped.
Some medical evidence suggests that certain areas of the brain can in fact improve after stroke. In a soon-to-bepublished article in the Journal of Neuroscience, Dr. Julius Fridriksson, Associate Professor at the University of South Carolina, offers data to suggest that spurring changes in the brain tissue of stroke patients can improve blood flow and increase activity in areas surrounding the damage. Fridriksson’s study challenges the common assumption that potential for progress ends after eighteen months of care. As Carl expresses in Aphasia: The Movie, “Hope’s gotta live longer than a year and a half.”
Carl dubs his wife Elizabeth, to whom the film is dedicated, his “angel” during the trials of his recovery. Elizabeth notes the experience of Carl’s illness felt like losing her best friend: they could no longer watch television, share jokes, and laugh together. Once happy as a stay-athome mom, Elizabeth found she had to go back to work as a teacher to help support the family. Since the film’s production, however, the McIntyres say they have found a new sense of purpose and have been able to enjoy a new phase in their lives.
Today Carl is a spokesman for aphasia and has made a career of promoting his film and giving motivational presentations. He plans to teach acting again and maybe even perform a one-man show. When asked how he feels about all the attention and travel opportunities that have been thrust on him since the making of Aphasia, Carl says he’s “walking on air.”
Recently, during a presentation in South Carolina, Carl noticed his microphone wasn’t working correctly, so he simply took it off. “Theater is the best theater,” he said to his audience, as he launched into a presentation filled with keen observations, expressive gestures and humorous asides. “Stroke sucks,” he said. “Aphasia…really, really sucks. Some words…I know I know, but…I don’t know. I never quit. Never quit. Every day hard. But I win…every day.”
At a recent showing of Aphasia, Carl’s son Sawyer sat in rapt attention, watching his father’s story unfold and seeing himself on the big screen. One wonders if this film will serve as Sawyer’s lasting memory of his father’s stroke. When asked what his children think about Aphasia: The Movie, Carl smiles, points to himself, opens his arms wide, and says “Star!”
by Anne Wood Humphries