Opera Singer Overcomes Stroke That at First Left Him Speechless

Eric Jordan didn't know if he would sing again after his stroke.

Dec. 16, 2013— -- Two-year-old Gabriel Jordan's squeals filled the Metropolitan Opera lobby as he ran around its plush, red carpet beneath twinkling chandeliers.

"There he is," said the boy's father, 42-year-old bass singer Eric Jordan, looking around at the source of the noise and smiling.

Jordan's booming voice still holds traces of the stroke that rendered him speechless on the day Gabriel's cries kept him from dying in his sleep.

The Onset

Gabriel woke up most mornings and cried until his parents put him in bed with them, and the morning of Jordan's stroke was no different. It was September 2012, and Jordan's wife fetched their crying child at 5:30 a.m.

But something was wrong.

"We all settled back down, but Eric never did," Jordan's wife, Christina Arethas, said.

Irritated, she faced him and said his name.

"At that point, he was not able to look at me. He was not able to open his eyes," she said. "I started really raising my voice, thinking maybe he's in a dreamlike state. I hit him across -- I slapped him across the face a couple of times."

None of it worked, so she put Gabriel in another room and talked to Jordan alone. That was when she heard a thud.

"As soon as I stood up, I felt faint," Jordan said. "My right arm froze."

Arethas found Jordan on the floor, bleeding from his head and thrashing about as if trying to stand up.

"At this point, his eyes were open," Arethas said. "I said, 'Please, if you can just say anything, say something to me right now.' And he couldn't."

She dialed 911 and medics rushed Jordan to New York Presbyterian Hospital. There, doctors told her Jordan had had a stroke.

When Arethas got her first good look at him, she saw that the right side of his face was drooping. Doctors peppered him with questions, but he couldn't answer any of them.

Arethas turned to a resident and asked, "Will he be like this?"

The resident answered, "Worst case scenario, yes."

"That was when the world came crashing in on me," Arethas said.

The Hospital

Jordan had an ischemic stroke, meaning that one of the arteries leading to his brain was blocked. The interrupted blood flow deprived Jordan's brain of oxygen, which caused cells to die. In Jordan's case, the affected part of his brain was the left hemisphere.

"That's a very critical part of the brain," said Dr. Maksim Shapiro, an interventional radiologist at NYU Langone who did not treat Jordan but specializes in using brain catheterization to stop strokes. "We speak with the left hemisphere."

According to the National Stroke Association, one in four stroke survivors experiences a language impairment called aphasia. This can manifest as difficulty in speaking, understanding speech or reading.

When Jordan woke up, having undergone a regimen of potentially life-threatening drugs and surgery, his wife told him he would need to cancel his upcoming gigs.

"He could not say one word," she said. "For a person who was so verbal, so gregarious, I mean, you could not shut him up before, he could not say one word. That was pretty disheartening."

Jordan thought to himself that he would be fine in a few days, but the stroke had left him with aphasia, which meant he had a hard time formulating thoughts into speech, and apraxia, which made it difficult for his muscles to form the words. His right vocal cord was initially paralyzed by the stroke, he said.

He feared that his opera days were over a mere two years after starting at his dream job: singing with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

"I was like a cave man," he said. "It was a hard pill to swallow, the amazing reality that I cannot phonate well, cannot pronounce my Italian, German or Russian or that I cannot remember my music."

The Recovery

Jordan began therapy within the first few weeks of his stroke, but recovery was slow. He felt that he had an "iron tongue" and that it needed to be untied.

But singing involves different parts of the brain than speaking does, and he soon found that it was sometimes easier for him to sing than to speak.

"How ironic is it that for an opera singer like me to be a singer that cannot speak?" he said, before demonstrating by singing a few lines of a slow song called "Down in the Valley," pronouncing every word with care.

He speaks and sings every day to loosen his tongue.

At first, Jordan could only speak when he was especially emotional, accessing a "deep place," Arethas said. When she first told him he would have to learn to speak again, he paused and uttered a word she couldn't say in front of Gabriel.

"I've been told that's a different part of the brain that processes that type of communication," she said.

More than a year later, Jordan still sometimes trips over his words, but as he walks past singers and stagehands on their breaks, he speaks -- and sometimes sings -- almost as if nothing had happened. It takes him longer to learn a role than it did before his stroke, but he can do it.

The first time Jordan needed to perform was just a little more than a month after his stroke, because another singer had jury duty.

"I was so scared," he said. "Because onstage -- this place where I wanted to work with all the people here for years -- I thought my future here was done. Thankfully, it isn't."

He would soon perform a part in Don Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera with his wife, his parents and his doctor in the audience.

When Jordan becomes frustrated, Arethas reminds him of this performance.

"Because he had that victory, there were other victories along the way," she said. "That was one of the peaks on our roller coaster journey."