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Embracing Freedom: UCF Clinic Helps Woman Achieve American Dream

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[Update: Also see a video, Stroke victim overcomes great obstacles while applying for U.S. citizenship, produced by the Orlando Sentinel - July 2, 2015]

By Zenaida Gonazlez Kotala

This Fourth of July, Fernanda Mello has much to celebrate: becoming a U.S. citizen as a result of working hard to master English following her arrival in Orlando from her native Brazil at age 15.

She treasures the freedom she's found in America, including freedom of speech. For Mello, that carries greater meaning than it does for many others. A paralyzing stroke at age 27 robbed her of the ability to speak, something she's finally regained with help from UCF's Communication Disorders Clinic.

"It was so frustrating," Mello said about the stroke, which left her partially paralyzed and unable to speak. "I was so angry. I could hear and understand everything the doctors were saying. But they couldn't understand me. My brain was scrambled. Thank God for UCF. They helped me get my life back."

While non-UCF doctors and physical therapists helped Mello learn to walk again, UCF's instructors and graduate students at the clinic helped her with her speech. Mello progressed so well that she was able to pass her U.S. citizenship exam in May. She said this Fourth of July has special meaning to her because she now has the freedom to speak again.

"I always wanted to become a citizen," she said. "This country is wonderful, so many opportunities. Then with the stroke, I had to fight. It was so hard. Now people can understand me again. I have freedom to be understood. It's so wonderful. I promise you I make my voice heard at every election until I die."

Jane Hostetler, the clinical instructor who oversaw Mello's treatment at UCF, said she is in awe of the Orlando resident.

"With aphasia patients, all the information is in their head," Hostetler said. "But they just can't access it. They have to relearn how to think and communicate. We worked with her by coming up with strategies to help her speak, read and write. She really is an American hero to me."

The UCF clinic provides cutting-edge diagnostics and services to people of all ages in the community with communication and hearing challenges. Clients range from preschoolers to seniors and from those learning speech for the first time to those challenged by a loss of speech from disease. Graduate students of the UCF Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders work under the supervision of faculty and staff experts to help clients. More than 1,800 patients were helped at the clinic last year.

The clinic staff and those who attend the clinic's social Friday Club threw Mello a recent surprise Fourth of July party to celebrate her earning her citizenship. Staffers played the song "Hail to the Chief" when Mello walked in, presented her with flowers and led her to an all-American-themed picnic they had prepared.

Mello beamed as staffers and fellow patients showered her with red, white and blue balloons, flowers and streamers. She mouthed a thank you to Hostetler and Michelle Condemarin, the graduate student who modified the therapy sessions to include studying for the citizenship test last semester. Condemarin, who is scheduled to graduate next spring, hopes to work with geriatric patients with degenerative diseases when she graduates.

"She was nervous about the [citizenship] interview portion," Condemarin said about Mello. "She knew all the answers, but it is stressful. But she did very well. It's so nice to see someone do so well. It really makes all the work worth it."

Mello said the team at the clinic changed her life. It was one thing to learn English when she was 15. It was another to relearn to read, write and speak again after her stroke. She plans to go back to school. She's decided nursing is a bit ambitious at her age, but still wants to help others. So she's looking at enrolling in a program that will lead her to become a physical therapist assistant.

"They did so much for me," Mello said. "I love talking and to be understood again; that is freedom. I will always thank the people at UCF for that."

[Note: Individuals with acquired neurological damage, which may result in aphasia, may receive therapy at Aphasia House in the Communication Disorders Clinic. Aphasia House offers a full range of services for individuals with aphasia, from intensive treatment to traditional delivery (both group and individual therapy), as well as community support groups. Learn more at www.cohpa.ucf.edu/clinic/aphasia/.]

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