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Greek And Latin Scholar Relearns Two Languages After Stroke

March 17, 1986

NORTON, Mass. (AP) _ More than six years after a stroke erased all words from her mind, Dorothea Wender has relearned enough English and Greek to keep teaching college, and to publish a murder mystery and a book on the Greek philosopher Plato.

″I was the ‘miracle.’ I wasn’t supposed to get better,″ she said in a recent interview. ″It was no miracle. I worked like crazy to get back. I had to learn English all over again.″

Even now names of places and people come hard to Ms. Wender, 51, who teaches at Wheaton College, a women’s school south of Boston.

She still can’t multiply or divide, but she has come a long way since a broken artery flooded her brain with blood, wiping out all memory of how to read, write, add or subtract, let alone translate Hesiod’s poetry or write a mystery.

The stroke came without warning just before Thanksgiving 1979. She saw dots while driving home and her living room looked upside down. She couldn’t remember the word ″ambulance.″ Then she blacked out.

The stroke had left her with aphasia, an inability to understand or recall words. She was amused to realize she didn’t know her own name, but when she tried to explain to nurses, her words made no sense.

″Neurologists told me to be patient. They said I’d either get better or I wouldn’t. Horse manure,″ she said. ″You’ve got to do it yourself. You’ve got to talk to people.″

At home she labored at learning simple words from English-language handbooks for foreigners. Her three teen-age children pinned labels on furniture in the house. She tape-recorded her speech to catch mistakes and kept a diary.

″Sometimes all I could write was a few words, like ‘I hated life yesterday’ or ’The sun was out,‴ she said.

She cried when her book ″Roman Poetry from the Republic to the Silver Age″ arrived from the publisher and when doctors reduced the medication that kept her unnaturally cheerful during her recovery.

Most depressing of all was her speech therapist’s warning to relearn how to read and write within the first year of her stroke or risk losing the ability forever.

″Two days before the year was over, I still couldn’t read or write,″ she said. ″I can see why so many people kill themselves in the first year. I didn’t because I have three kids to take care of, but it occurred to me.″

Ms. Wender was urged on also by a dwindling bank account. She felt she had to teach again to make money despite the odds against her.

Six months after the stroke, she had attended classes in beginning Greek, taught by a professor hired to take her place. The following fall semester, still illiterate in English, she was back at the blackboard, but just one step ahead of students in the class.

″We learned it together,″ she said. ″I just worked a lot harder than the students did to know a little more than they did.″

She worked hard at the ancient language, however, to the detriment of her native tongue and often had to ask students for the English equivalent of a Greek word.

It took her three years to read an entire book. It was a study of aphasia.

Her colleagues describe Ms. Wender’s comeback as heroic. But they and the college also helped in the process.

Wheaton hired a teaching assistant to read her students’ papers until she could handle them on her own, and every day colleagues helped Ms. Wender grope for words during what one called painful lunchtime conversations.

″She was highly respected here and this is a small college where everyone knows each other,″ classics professor Eva Stehle said.

No one is more awed at her recovery than Ms. Wender, who has written two books since the stroke and is under pressure from her literary agent for another.

″I just learned the word ‘though’ last year,″ she said. ″It’s amazing to think, How can somebody sell a book who doesn’t even know the word ‘though’?″

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