Before 2018, Colorado artist Michael Hassett painted in the style of watercolor realism, a technique he used to capture landscapes in dreamlike detail. Today, a stroke has changed the way he expresses himself; the striking abstract art he makes is inspired by the unique way he now experiences music with chromesthesia, a rare side effect of his stroke that causes him to experience sounds as visual colors. Learning new ways to paint, communicate and have relationships again would be a long journey for Michael, but his determination and creativity in the face of adversity would go on to shape both his art and his outlook.
Michael worked as an architectural designer in Louisville, Colo., and enjoyed creating art in his free time. He had been living with a cardiac condition since his early 30's, and one day in May of 2018, Michael began to experience strange symptoms. After driving home, he found himself unable to do things like turn off his car or unlock his front door and he passed out for long periods of time at home over the course of the day, too confused to determine what was happening to him or call for help. The next morning, he was finally able to call his boss before a meeting, but his speech was too difficult to understand. Fortunately, his boss’s wife, a registered nurse, knew immediately that something was wrong, and they were able to get him to a hospital for treatment.
Michael had sustained a stroke at 34 years old. The next thing he remembered was waking up in a hospital bed surrounded by his family and unable to communicate. He recalled being frustrated by things like the bright lights of his hospital room, but he was unable to ask someone to turn them off. During his time in the hospital, he had to relearn everything, from tying his shoes to writing. After several weeks of treatment at multiple hospitals, he went home still unable to speak verbally and with little support and few tools to help him communicate non-verbally.
The next three years of Michael's life were extremely difficult for him; he received limited follow-up care, couldn't return to work and experienced post-stroke depression. An app on his phone that allowed him to pick out simple sentences for other people to read became the only way he could communicate.
Michael writes: “I thought I'd never talk again. I had two words for weeks, and both [were] curse words. It was really depressing. I lost my career, my grammar, my spelling. I lost talking to friends, family and new people. My friends, my family and new people were [condescending] to me. My ideas and my education were stuck in my brain, but I can't convey them. Verbal or writing.
“I had a lot of suicidal thoughts, but I'm trying to live for my family, friends and my dog. My heart failed six years ago, I was dying. I said no to a heart transplant, I want the heart to [go to] a kid or adult with kids. After three years, I thought I was better. But I had a stroke and my heart failed again. I was too tired to try again."
As he struggled with his life after his stroke, he turned to the art he had enjoyed so much before. Because Michael had lost fine motor skill in his hands, he couldn’t return to the detailed painting style he used before. And due to the chromesthesia he experienced, the colors that constantly accompanied the noise around him made dealing with the sounds of daily life more difficult for him. But in music, he found new expression, his new style shaped by the sounds that inspired him.
“I hear colors. So I tried my art again and now I paint songs. Music is awesome. All music is good now, but live music is so good,” Michael says. “Now my art is new again and more free.”
In 2020, Michael began to spend more time at the dog park in his apartment complex with Maddy, his service dog trained to support his heart condition, to try to meet new people to talk with during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was difficult for him since he couldn’t communicate verbally, but he knew weeks of isolation would be detrimental to his communication skills and depression. It was there that he met a speech-language pathologist named Krista who recommended he look into constraint-induced language therapy and led him to find the Craig Hospital Aphasia Therapy (CHAT) program. After applying to participate in the program, he received a scholarship provided by a Craig Foundation donor and began treatment with a CHAT speech-language pathologist (SLP), Katie Cassady, MA CCC-SLP, CBIS, RYT-500, in December of 2020.
“CHAT is so hard - it’s like you’re trying [types “weightlifting”] but for your [types “brain”]. It was six hours a day, for three weeks,” Michael says.
“Even when he can’t find the right words, Michael is a natural at non-verbal communication, which is super helpful,” Craig SLP Katie says. “He has so much to say, so I was thrilled to be able to help him learn to express himself verbally again. His progress in the CHAT program was incredible, and what’s great is that he was able to keep progressing after the program was over because he had new tools to use in everyday life.”
Today, Michael is able to speak and have conversations verbally again, with some continued assistance from his phone app to help him find the words he wants to say, and is also receiving physical therapy and occupational therapy at Craig for some lingering weakness from his stroke. He still struggles with finding words and grapples with the difficulties of having an “invisible disability,” but now he is able to meet new people and connect with others again. For the first time in three years, he was able to speak with his family. His first phone call since his stroke was to wish his sister a happy birthday, and in May, he was able to call his mom on Mother’s Day - something he says he didn’t think he would ever be able to do again.
“Now we can talk. It’s all new again. I can have rough days, but it’s better [than] the phone [app]. My speech is better every day,” Michael says. “CHAT is more than for my speech. My life is back.”
In a written letter, he shares: “My speech, grammar, spelling, work, talk to friends, talk to strangers and I thought all of that is lost. I'm lucky to find this program and very lucky Craig has generous [donors]. CHAT saved my life.”
Michael looks to build his art and photography business in the future and recently donated a piece of art that was auctioned off at the Craig Foundation 2021 PUSH Gala to help raise funds to benefit patients at Craig.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, support is available. Reach the free, 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by starting an online text chat at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org or calling the toll-free hotline at 800-273-8255.