Ryan Armaoui is on a remarkable journey to regain his speech after a stroke seven months ago temporarily erased his ability to communicate.

As he slowly rebuilds his vocabulary, the 28-year-old’s message is clear – there is always hope.

Ryan has set up a Facebook support group – Malta Stroke Survivors – to help stroke survivors who might be struggling to pick up the pieces.

“I want to help anyone. I cannot do much, but I can speak to them... I will try to speak to them. I found support and I want to be of support to others.”

Before the stroke, Ryan was working as an assistant manager at Olea restaurant. Part of his work was being front of house and meeting and greeting patrons. “I like to speak a lot. This was a part of my job I loved,” says Ryan, recounting the day of the stroke.

It was a Sunday lunchtime last October when he was stocktaking at the restaurant that forms part of the Salini Resort.

“I felt a headache. It kept escalating. It felt as if my head was exploding. There was pressure. Imagine someone squeezing your hand. But instead of feeling it on the outside, you feel it inside your head. I knew this was not something I could control… I was OK at 1pm. I was far from OK at 3.30pm. I don’t remember anything after that.”

'For me, it’s a daily thing to improve. I’m 28 and I’m fighting to make it'. Video: Jonathan Borg

Ryan passed out at work.

Minutes before he collapsed, he told a colleague he was not feeling well and asked him to call his girlfriend – Sarah Camilleri. He knew something was seriously wrong. He was rushed to Mater Dei Hospital.

For Ryan, this was a blur and his next memory is being in hospital and feeling confused.

‘I could not remember the words’

When he regained consciousness, he could not understand what was being said. It was like people were speaking a foreign language. And when he tried to speak, he could not find the words.

“I would know, for example, that a teacup is something you drink from. But I could not remember the word,” he says.

Ryan had suffered a stroke, which is caused by blocked blood flow to the brain or sudden bleeding in the brain.

According to Research Trust Malta, stroke is the most common cause of severe disability in Malta with one in four men and one in five women expected to have a stroke by age 85.

It’s like there is an ‘off’ button for each word and you have to switch them all back on- Ryan Armaoui

In Ryan’s case, the stroke impacted the areas of the brain that control speech and language, which is known as aphasia. The stroke also affected his right peripheral vision on both eyes.

“Language took the biggest hit. And it’s the thing I loved. I really like people. It bothered me a lot that I could not express myself: what I was seeing and thinking.”

During those 10 days in hospital, some words started coming back slowly. Meanwhile, his girlfriend acted as his “interpreter”.

“I would point at items, and she says the word. When I was in hospital, my girlfriend played the film Harry Potter. It was the movie we would watch at home when one of us was sick. Listening to it helped me remember words.

“Learning was pretty fast. Once you learn the words, they stick. It’s like there is an ‘off’ button for each word and you have to switch them all back on,” he said, recalling that he would stammer to talk as he started the path to recovery.

In January, a friend introduced him to tutor, Fabienne Buhagiar, and she started tutoring him to catch up on the lost language.

His stammering improved as his vocabulary – in both Maltese and English – was rebuilt.

But in the beginning of April, Ryan suffered an epileptic fit.

His doctor told him this was not uncommon following a stroke. It forced him to slow down a bit and take things a bit easier, but did not impact the progress he had made.

Things have changed since the stroke: he cannot drive and travelling is difficult.

What did not change is his overall positive attitude towards life.

“For me, it’s a daily thing to improve. I’m 28 and I’m fighting to make it. Whatever it takes, I need to find a way. It was hard to find someone who went through it. I want this to improve. More than anything, I wish to help others who are living through it.

“You never know what’s going to happen. I have a routine where I kiss my girlfriend before leaving the house and she does the same. Thank God, that day I did. Imagine I did not. That would be really sad. The day of the stroke was a normal, routine day at work. It was a normal, good day. It wasn’t. But I’m alive.”

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