Mum lost ability to speak after a stroke – now she's an international model
‘I was completely voiceless,’ explains Pamela Bateman Lee, who had a stroke nine years ago. ‘Even now, I get anxious to go out incase someone tries to speak to me.’
The mum-of-two, now 54, was getting ready to go to work as an NHS Stop Smoking practioner in April 2013, when she opened her mouth to speak to her husband, Mike, but no words came out.
Mike thought that his wife was having a stroke, but as she didn’t display any of the other more widely known symptoms – such as facial weakness – the 999 operator and paramedics weren’t convinced.
But when Pamela was rushed from her home in Merseyside to hospital, Mike’s hunch proved to be correct, and Pamela was given an injection to dissolve the blood clot in her brain.
When she regained consciousness days later, she was still unable to speak, and had lost the use of her right side. She would also later find out she couldn’t read and write – as Mike says, it was ‘like hitting reset.’
Pamela was diagnosed with aphasia – a condition, usually caused by damage to the left side of the brain, which causes a person to have difficulty with their language or speech. Specifically, Pamela has expressive aphasia, which means she finds it difficult to find and say the right words, but knows exactly what she wants to say.
Her stroke also left her with dyspraxia, a disorder that affects movement and co-ordination, and hemi-paresis – a weakness of her right side.
Pamela says: ‘At first, I wanted to die. I hated it. My whole world collapsed.
‘Before the stroke, I was a busy mum, I had lots of friends and I was part of a local amateur dramatics group and choir.
‘Then suddenly, I couldn’t speak and a nurse had to help me shower.’
She spent just three weeks in hospital, before returning home.
Mike says: ‘It was pretty much, “This is what you’ve got, go home and get on with it.”
‘At first, I had to wash her, carry her up the stairs, put her in the bath, and you think, “Is this what life has got in store for us?”‘
While Pamela’s eldest daughter, Kellie, then 20, had already left home, her youngest, Mercedez, was just 13.
‘I felt like I couldn’t be a proper mum for her,’ says Pamela. ‘I couldn’t give her advice or help her with homework. It was awful.’
Pamela was given a six month course of speech and language therapy, where she had one hour sessions, once a week, but says the first few months – and then years – post stroke were some of the hardest.
She says: ‘I had to take early retirement due to ill health, so I was at home a lot, and I couldn’t do anything for myself.
‘There were some days where I didn’t want to get out of bed – I didn’t see the point.
‘I was depressed and very lonely.’
Pamela received six months of speech and language therapy on the NHS, but there was no ongoing improvement and her speech remained very limited.
‘It was very frustrating,’ she says. ‘I felt trapped.’
But Pamela was determined. She bought herself lots of books – the kind aimed at children to help them learn to read – and was committed to repeating sounds and phrases.
Her recovery has been a long, and slow process – but she slowly regained movement on her right side, and was able to say a few short words.
She says: ‘At first, words containing more than two syllables were a real challenge and I couldn’t remember how to spell words or put them in the right order to create a sentence.
‘It took a lot of work and effort, but slowly, I began to improve, and I started using apps on my phone to help day-to-day.
‘My mobility also slowly started to come back, but no sensation on my right side meant that I was always burning myself, because I couldn’t feel how hot something was.’
Mike adds: ‘Pamela doesn’t give herself much credit, but she went from only being able to gesture, to being able to form sentences again.’
Then, in 2019, Pamela got in touch the Aphasia Centre in Florida, USA, a specialist facility which supports people with the condition. She paid for a course of therapy, and flew out, alone.
She said: ‘I was in America for six weeks and I loved being there. The support at the centre was amazing, and everyone in the area knew what aphasia was. I didn’t have to explain myself all the time.’
Pamela also connected with other stroke survivors and people with aphasia at her stroke support group and via The Brain Charity, which helped her feel less alone.
Then, three years after her stroke, she decided to return to her drama group.
She says: ‘I was very anxious, but I wanted to do something that made me feel like myself again.
‘I loved acting again because it took me away from reality – it was a chance to just step into a different world.’
As Pamela began sharing her story – and acting ventures – online, she was contacted by an agent from Inclusive Talent, an agency which ensures that at least 50% of their clients identify as deaf, disabled or neurodivergent.
‘I started doing some some extras work. I’ve appeared in Sherwood and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It’s easier to say which shows I haven’t appeared on than the ones that I have!’
Then in summer 2022, Pamela was invited to audition to appear in a campaign for a global cosmetics brand.
She says: ‘I didn’t know what it was for at the time, but I had to send in a video tape and was thrilled when I got the job.
‘Then I found out it was for Lancôme, who were launching a motion stabilising device, HAPTA, which makes applying makeup with a disability much easier and more accessible.
‘The email said I would be going to Paris for three days to shoot the campaign. I couldn’t believe it – it was a huge moment.’
Pamela went to France in November 2022 where she demonstrated the new AI tool on camera, and shared her story.
She says: ‘I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone – not even the kids.
‘It was very tiring, but it was an incredible experience.
‘When the campaign launched in January this year, I felt so proud. Knowing that so many people would learn about aphasia because of me, was an incredible feeling.’
Now, Pamela says her recovery is still a ‘work in progress.’
She says: ‘I have good days and bad days. When I’m tried or stressed, I find it harder to communicate.
‘Having an invisible illness also presents challenges – until someone tries to speak to me, I don’t look like I have a disability.
‘But a bus driver once refused to allow me onto the bus because he thought I was drunk. On another occasion, a women bumped into me in a shop and when I couldn’t say anything, she called me ‘mental’.
‘I’ve also had people tell me I shouldn’t have a blue parking badge, because I look like I don’t have anything wrong with me.
‘It’s times like those that making living with aphasia even more difficult.’
But Pamela is determined to keep sharing her story.
She says: ‘If more people knew about aphasia, it would make life so much easier for people like me.
‘Bruce Willis was recently diagnosed, and I think its great his family are raising awareness of the condition.
‘The most important thing others should know about aphasia is to have patience. And for people with aphasia – you can talk, and can learn to help yourself.’
Now, Pamela is focused on pursuing her dreams.
‘I’ve got some exciting things in the pipeline that I can’t share right now,’ she laughs.
‘My biggest dream is to be made a Dame – who knows where life will take me!’
The Brain Charity works to help people with all forms of neurological condition to lead longer, healthier, happier lives.
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