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Message of Hope for Those with Brain Injuries

Martha Shmokler: Don’t give up.

— Life-long Arlington resident Martha Shmokler has battled brain injuries for more than a decade. She said she has had professionals tell her there are limits to what she can do, but she has never listened.

She said she has big goals, but her most important goal is to advocate for other people who suffer from her disability. From speaking engagements to book writing, Shmokler seeks to spread awareness about her condition.

On Aug. 25, Shmokler addressed an audience of more than 100 people at her Celebration of Life event at the Congregation Etz Hayim synagogue.

Shmokler, who was diagnosed with aphasia after suffering three strokes between 2001 and 2011, chanted a prayer before the Torah and afterward addressed the congregation about her life with a brain disorder.

“With my D’var Torah, all will see that there is hope for people like me who have had their lives shattered by a stroke,” Shmokler said in her speech. “I have aphasia … the inability to use or understand language, written or spoken. I have Wernicke’s/receptive aphasia which impacts language comprehension and the production of meaningful language.”

The message of her address was that people with brain disorders should maintain hope and be unafraid to seek out help as soon as they need it.

She said she invited President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Jim Moran to the event. Although they weren’t in attendance, she said it remains her goal to meet with them and speak to them about brain injuries.

One would never guess anything was different about Shmokler just by looking at her. She can cook, she can drive, and she can type. She does her own banking.

Shmokler, however, said she has always struggled with learning disabilities. It was the three strokes in her adulthood that compounded these difficulties. She said aphasia has stripped her of the ability to process information normally.

“I don’t have the ability to recall information, and words slip out that I didn’t mean to say,” Shmokler said.

She added that other symptoms include pronoun confusion, problems with recall, and trouble counting.

“It’s like I’m playing charades all the time and it’s really hard because when I don’t understand people, they don’t understand me,” Shmokler said.

Still, this has not stopped her from pursuing her goals and advocating for other people who struggle with brain deficiencies.

“I’m persistent and I don’t let up,” Shmokler said. “I don’t stop.”

Shmokler said she works with teachers and a slew of health professionals to improve her learning and communication skills.

“I went to all the teachers [at my daughters’ school,]” Shmokler said. “I didn’t want to hear ‘no.’”

One teacher who aids Shmokler is Paul DiBenedetto, a third grade teacher at Taylor Elementary School. The two connected because DiBenedetto taught all three of Shmokler’s daughters.

DiBenedetto said Shmokler’s problems lay in “understanding speech and comprehension.”

To aid her improvement in these areas, DiBenedetto provides Shmokler with packages of work sheets and learning exercises to help her relearn certain skills.

“Paul has helped me with comprehension,” Shmokler said. “He gave me books and he’d have me give book reports. He gives me packages of word searches and all kind of things to relearn.”

DiBenedetto said Shmokler first approached him through the Worry Bear he has in his classroom. Students and parents can write to the Worry Bear, and DiBenedetto responds on behalf of the beloved stuffed bear.

Shmokler “felt uncomfortable coming to me, so she started writing to the Worry Bear pot,” DiBenedetto said. “That’s how we communicated until she felt comfortable coming forward for help.”

She said what drives her is her ongoing goal to help people with brain injuries.

“I’m speaking for the people who don’t have an obvious injury,” Shmokler said. “I’m not discounting the people who have serious physical injuries, but what about people who suffer from brain injuries?”

DiBenedetto said he has watched Shmokler battle her injury with courage and humor.

“She wants people to see the other side, through her eyes,” DiBenedetto said. “It’s a silent disease so she wants people to be advocates for themselves for the services they need. You can get help but you can’t give up.”

In addition to other efforts, Shmokler has even written a book, entitled “The Bear Said What?,” which promotes her message. She said she hopes to get it published in the near future.

“It might not be a best seller, but I think it would be good,” Shmokler said. “The message: ask for help.”

Shmokler said she is working on a second book, but her goals do not stop there.

“I’m starting small with awareness, but I’d like to go big,” Shmokler said. “I want to get on ‘Oprah’ and ‘Ellen’ and talk to Obama.”