Urmi Basu was a promising young scientist, just 30 years old and recently married. She earned her Ph.D. in neurophysiology from the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) and was acclimating to married life in Memphis as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
On December 13, 2015, she suffered a rare type of stroke which resulted from a previously undetected arteriovenous malformation (AVM). Urmi was just five days short of walking across the stage as a “Graduate Student of Distinction,” the highest honor bestowed upon graduating doctoral students at UNMC. One day later, she underwent a craniotomy to relieve the pressure on her brain. Since then, Urmi has undergone subsequent surgeries to address her condition.
The stroke left Urmi paralyzed on her right side and struggling with aphasia, a communication disorder that impairs the ability to speak, understand language, read, and write. At the time, doctors told Soumitra Bhuyan, Urmi’s loving husband, that she would never again be able to recognize him . . . and initially, she did not.
“It was shocking and heartbreaking,” Soumitra recalled. “Just the thought of Urmi never remembering who I am made me more determined than ever to get her the best care. I knew that I couldn’t take any chances by not doing so.”
Plain and simple, the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab is the best in the country. It’s made me appreciate the power of integrating science and medicine more than ever.Soumitra Bhuyan, Urmi’s Husband
On January 12, 2016, Urmi was admitted to the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab (formerly Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago) as an inpatient, where she would stay for one month. At the time, she needed a wheelchair for mobility and was not able to speak. During that month, Urmi worked hard for several hours each day in physical, occupational and speech therapies.
“Urmi has a life-long passion for science, research and education,” said Soumitra, a fellow researcher studying health systems and policies. “Our devotion to research and science has been the foundation for Urmi’s rehabilitation and recovery.”
Urmi’s physical therapists focused on high-intensity, task-specific training, an approach pioneered by researchers at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. She was fitted with an ankle-foot orthosis (AFO), a customized type of brace which helps hold the foot and ankle in the correct position for walking. With her custom orthotic, Urmi immediately began to practice walking and stepping. Exercises to improve her balance and functional mobility included multi-directional walking, early stair work, and avoiding obstacles placed in her path. To build strength while doing these activities, she wore an ankle weight on the impaired side of her body.
To complement her speech therapy sessions, Urmi practiced with Oral Reading for Language in Aphasia (ORLA), a computer program and treatment for aphasia developed by Shirley Ryan AbilityLab scientists. The program requires the person with aphasia to repeat sentences aloud, guided by a speech language pathologist (SLP). She soon began initiating more frequent verbal expressions to communicate her needs and, with her SLP, developed alternative communication strategies.
Urmi’s hard work over that month paid off. Upon discharge, she was able to walk out of the hospital with a cane, and she continued outpatient therapy for the next three months at DayRehab, where she worked in therapy for six hours each day. There, she made tremendous and steady progress improving walking speed and distance, formulating language and speaking, and gaining independence in doing daily tasks. As part of her therapeutic journey, Urmi went grocery shopping and then cooked shrimp scampi for her care team. There were many clean plates that night. She also participated in additional outings including bowling and kayaking on the Chicago River. Her unbridled spirit continuously shone through, even as she danced with the Nintendo Wii.
This past summer, Urmi participated in a Shirley Ryan AbilityLab study called Intensive Comprehensive Aphasia Program (ICAP): a Randomized Clinical Trial. The study compares the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of varying “dosages” of speech therapy, comparing a program of 60 hours over 3 weeks with one than offers 60 hours over 15 weeks.
“As scientists, we understand the value of being in a clinical setting that leverages science and research for the benefit of patients,” said Soumitra. “Plain and simple, the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab is the best in the country. It’s made me appreciate the power of integrating science and medicine more than ever.”
Urmi’s participation in the ICAP study was a contribution to the advancement of science and medical care, and it will also benefit other patients in the long term. Even more significantly, it helped her recover abilities she never thought she would. Although recovery is an ongoing process, by the end of the study, Soumitra was able to see a visible change in Urmi as she grew in her ability to construct clear sentences in both speaking and writing. “I really want to say thank you,” said Urmi.
Today, Urmi is back in Memphis staying up-to-date on advances in her field and is eager to resume to full-time work in neurophysiology. She has kept up with her long-time mentor, Matthew Zimmerman, Director of the Integrative Physiology and Molecular Doctoral Program at UNMC, and is currently extending the work she conducted in her doctoral program. Dr. Zimmerman provided continued support for Urmi and Soumitra throughout her rehabilitation. “I am grateful to Dr. Zimmerman for everything he has done. He is a great human being.” Urmi said. Urmi is also thankful for all of the support she received from her extended family in Omaha, Nebraska; Memphis, Tennessee; and India. She is grateful to her wonderful parents and sister who stayed with her during the difficult time. After her journey, she is more determined than ever to make her mark on science.
Urmi can now walk without a cane and she remains committed to continuing her therapy. She and Soumitra are planning a trip to Greece next year, but her first goal is to walk at the University of Nebraska Medical Center graduation ceremony to cement her accomplishments. “She’s the Comeback Queen,” beamed a proud and grateful Soumitra. He added, “my biggest goal in life is to bring her back to science.”