BY GABRIELLE RUSSON
Fernanda Mello’s voice was trapped inside as her tongue was paralyzed, like she had eaten a jar of peanut butter. After her stroke, her brain didn’t function properly to retrieve the words.
At the UCF (University of Central Florida) Aphasia House, graduate students work with stroke patients such as Mello, 33, who struggled to recall the English language.
The patients’ brains were like short-circuited lamps, flickering in and out. It was an excruciatingly slow healing process. Some recovered during months or years; some never.
“They know what they’ve lost,” said Jane Hostetler, an associate instructor at the University of Central Florida. “They want to get it back.”
It made Mello furious when a family friend asked whether she was mentally disabled. No, she wasn’t slow just because the words didn’t flow.
From Brazil to Florida
She was still the same person as before: the doting aunt who took her three nieces shopping, the friend with the silly personality, the student hungry to finish her education.
The speech pathologists knew they could not underestimate Mello.
When Mello, who moved to Florida from Brazil in high school, announced she wanted to become a U.S. citizen, her speech therapist vowed to help her.
But the citizenship test meant Mello would be put on the spot. She would need to fire out answers in front of a stranger.
Could she communicate well enough to pass when sometimes the right words would not come out?
Learning to talk again
Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
Mello tapped out the syllables on the table to say “Declaration of Independence,” a trick she learned at Aphasia House.
In Mello’s rehab, her speech therapists reminded her of ways to pull out the words. Sometimes writing it down helped. Or signing the first letter of the word in sign language under her chin.
How old was Mello? She counted 30, 31, 32 in her head to reach the answer — “33,” she said.
Mello was in the hospital nearly six years ago after she suffered a stroke at age 27 — the age of the speech therapist sitting with her, Michelle Condemarin.
Now, Condemarin, a UCF graduate student, listened as Mello read aloud about the U.S. colonies and Revolutionary War during their Monday morning sessions. Condemarin corrected her when Mello said the word “judicial” wrong.
“When you have somebody who really wants to help you, that makes a big difference,” said Mello’s mother, Renata Brandt, who became a U.S. citizen herself in 2010.
Passed the test
When Mello drove, she listened to a practice CD to memorize the 100 questions.
She smiled often, flashing her wide grin. She learned how to laugh at her mistakes. It was better than crying.
The therapy sessions helped her language skills during the past five months, but more importantly, they gave her confidence. Condemarin assured Mello she could pass the test.
“Who is the current president of the United States?” the test proctor asked her in May.
“Obama,” Mello said.
She was ready.
Her mother knew she passed when Mello flashed her the thumbs-up sign.
These days, Mello’s life is crammed with daily gym visits, going out with her friends and family time.
She isn’t afraid to go to the coffee shop and order a drink alone or ask for a different shirt size at a store.
“I did it,” Mello said, brushing the imaginary dirt off her shoulders as she recalls the daily victories.
She dates. “My English isn’t so great. I’m from Brazil,” she slyly tells men, hiding the real reason for her struggles.
She easily holds a conversation, although she relies on her therapy tricks to recall some words.
Her next challenge, she decides, is to go back to school to become a physical therapist’s assistant.