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Young stroke victim hopes to inspire others

November 16, 2013

NORTH ATTLEBORO, Mass. (AP) — After she had a massive stroke at the age of 11, doctors said Laurel Fontaine would never talk again.

Fontaine, now 18, has spent the past seven years proving everyone wrong.

Not only can she talk, the North Attleboro High School senior has a goal of becoming a motivational speaker and recently gave a speech before 250 guests at Harvard University.

The speech was to donors for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where Fontaine, the daughter of David and Cathy Fontaine, went through melodic intonation therapy to help her learn how to speak again.

“I thanked them for helping me find my voice,” she said. “They were so kind to help me out, so I just wanted to thank everybody.”

Seven years ago, Laurel was a healthy, athletic 11-year-old celebrating Memorial Day weekend with a friendly game of tag with her twin sister Heather.

Part way through the game, Laurel’s head started to ache, so she ran over to her mother and said she felt sick, then collapsed on the ground.

Her mom called 911, and a medical helicopter landed in the park to fly Laurel to the hospital.

She spent the next 10 days in a coma, and her parents were given a very dark picture: Laurel would probably never be able to walk, talk or care for herself.

But, with her plucky spirit and positive attitude, Laurel quickly started proving she would defy the odds.

Small victories began to add up, Cathy Fontaine recalled, including the day Laurel sat up, the day she sipped water from a cup, the day she combed her own hair.

Now, Laurel not only walks, but plays golf alongside her dad.

Because the stroke decimated most of the left side of Laurel’s brain, which controls speech, talking was a particular challenge.

A year of traditional speech therapy didn’t help, but Cathy Fontaine convinced researchers to include Laurel in a melodic therapy project, which was originally geared for adult stroke victims.

Melodic therapy trains the right side of the brain, where singing is controlled, to learn speech by singing words and phrases.

Laurel proved to be a perfect subject for the research study led by Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, because brain scans of her identical twin sister Heather could be used to help analyze the results.

Laurel participated in the therapy every day for months and quickly began accumulating words.

Now, she doesn’t even need to sing the words out loud, but does so quickly in her head if she needs to pause to find the perfect word to express her thoughts.

“On her first day, she started with about eight words. Now she has about 8,000,” David Fontaine said of his daughter’s progress. “And she’s still adding to her vocabulary.”

Laurel plans to use that vocabulary to inspire others.

She proudly shows her business card, identifying her as an “inspired stroke survivor,” and hopes to participate in a program that will allow her to talk to others who have had strokes.

“I want to give others hope so they understand with hard work and a positive attitude, things can get better,” she said.

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