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When a photograph speaks a thousand words

Caitlin McDonald loved her studies at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Institute of Health Professions graduate school, from which she recently earned a master’s degree in speech pathology. She also loves photography.

McDonald recently combined them to create “Thousands of Words,” a photo exhibition dedicated to raising awareness of aphasia, a speech impairment stemming from a stroke or other traumatic brain injury.

Hingham native McDonald, 33, took portraits of 11 clients at the institute’s Aphasia Center, visiting them in or near their homes where they felt more comfortable. She interviewed the subjects so she could use their descriptions of what it’s like to lose their communication skills in captions accompanying the photos. The exhibition opened last month at the MGH institute’s campus in the former Charlestown Navy Yard, and in October is slated to shift down the street to the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, McDonald said.

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“Much therapy for aphasia is picture-based,” McDonald said. “It’s interesting that someone who can’t say a lot will say a little more when prompted with a picture. The more multisensory you can make a treatment, the easier you make it for the brain.”

And, she said, “there is no cure for aphasia, no pill,” adding that therapy helps the most to regain lost speech.

According to the National Aphasia Association, aphasia affects about 1 million Americans, and is more common than Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, or muscular dystrophy.

She credited three businesses in her hometown for donating services for the display: South Street Gallery, Aisling Gallery & Framing, and Framing Concepts.

“None of them had heard about aphasia before,” she said of the gallery owners. “So in addition to helping — and the exhibit could not have happened without their support — they learned about the condition.”

One of the worst parts of aphasia, she said, is that its victims are misunderstood.

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“One man said people think he’s drunk when he talks, or something’s wrong mentally with him,” she said. “It’s a common slogan in the aphasia community: ‘Loss of language is not a loss of intellect.’ We always remind our patients of that.”


Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at pkandarian@aol.com.