A computer science professor used his stroke to create an app that helps survivors relearn their skills

Stroke survivor and computer science professor Mark Brodie. (Photo courtesy of Mark Brodie)

Mark Brodie, stroke survivor and computer science teacher. (Photo courtesy of Mark Brodie)

Mark Brodie sat behind his laptop in his home office, marking student assignments for a mobile apps course he taught at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa.

Suddenly, he couldn’t put his thoughts in order. Everything on the screen and in his mind seemed confused. He had never experienced anything like it. He knew something was wrong.

He called his wife, Carolyn. Also a professor at Simpson College, she would normally have been at work but was at home at the time.

Carolyn went upstairs and saw that Mark’s face was sagging. He seemed confused but managed to tell her to call 911. By the time he arrived at the hospital he was unable to speak.

Doctors carried out a series of tests which showed that Mark had a stroke. Because he arrived so quickly, he was able to receive anti-clot medication.

Mark’s next clear memory came three days later. His only physical problem was minor numbness in his right hand and leg. But he couldn’t speak, spell or type.

He was devastated. What kind of life would a computer science teacher have if he couldn’t teach or write programs?

Carolyn felt more optimistic. The doctors had told him that his improvement could come daily and for several months.

Progress came right away.

The next day, not only had Mark regained his feeling in his hand, but speech therapists had already helped him pronounce a few words.

“I think Mark had a great attitude, even though he says no, because he was always willing to work with any therapist – speech therapy, occupational, physical,” Carolyn said. “He never got angry.

Mark Brodie (left) with his wife, Carolyn.  (Photo courtesy of Mark Brodie)
Mark Brodie (left) with his wife, Carolyn. (Photo courtesy of Mark Brodie)

Mark was encouraged by the can-do attitude of his therapists.

“I first started to feel hope not just from the therapy itself, but from the therapists,” he said. “They didn’t promise that I would recover. But the fact that they had hope gave me hope.”

After a week of hospital therapy, Mark could say many words. He returned home and started outpatient speech and occupational therapy. There was no need for more physical therapy.

Mark could understand what others were saying, but had difficulty speaking, which is called aphasia. He also lacked control of the muscles used to form words, called apraxia.

Mark’s recovery was greatly aided by the presence of his mother, who traveled from South Africa to help the family, as well as the incredible support of the Simpson College community. The use of speech therapy apps was also crucial.

“I basically had to explicitly do what a kid does,” he said. “With an app, I had to repeat words and sounds. I saw pictures and I had to guess the word.”

Mark feared he would have to relearn every word he knew. Then he was taught a shortcut: the same sounds are used in many words.

“I realized there was a pattern, like an algorithm in computing,” he said.

This sparked an idea for Mark and Carolyn. Maybe they could use his experience to develop their own app.

With input from Lisa Raymond, the first speech pathologist who gave Mark hope, he and Carolyn did it. Their product simulates online banking as a way to help people with brain injuries relearn skills such as logging in, transferring money and paying bills. Raymond uses it at two rehab centers in Des Moines, Iowa.

After Mark’s stroke in November 2019, doctors discovered he had a hole in his heart called a patent foramen ovale (PFO). Everyone is born with the hole, but most close on their own within a few months. Millions of people have PFO – most unknowingly – and have no problem. But problems can arise, such as a clot escaping and causing a stroke.

The operation to close the hole was scheduled for May 2020. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic had hit then, but he did it and is happy about it. He also received an implantable loop recorder to monitor his heart rate.

That fall, Mark – with the peace of mind that his heart was repaired and cared for – returned to the classroom. The 55-year-old has returned to teaching on a regular schedule.

    Mark Brodie in New York in 2021. (Photo courtesy of Mark Brodie)
Mark Brodie in New York in 2021. (Photo courtesy of Mark Brodie)

Although others may not detect that he has a speech impediment, Mark sometimes struggles to find his words, especially in front of an audience.

Spelling and typing also remain difficult. He combats this by using software that transcribes his speech into writing. He and Carolyn are also working with students on designing more agile speech recognition programs.

Being partners at work and in life, as well as having a similar sense of humor, has helped the couple support each other through their ordeal.

“Mark has always been more of a theoretical computer scientist than me,” Carolyn joked. “Now I laugh and tell him he’s finally with me.”

Stories from the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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