Himalaya Climb to Raise Awareness for Aphasia Research

Greg Leonard plans to climb Kun peak in the Indian Himalayas to raise awareness of and money for the UA's Aphasia Group. The climbing period is scheduled for July 20-31.
June 24, 2013

The way Greg Leonard sees it, climbing Kun peak in the Indian Himalayas pales in comparison to the every-day challenges of living with aphasia.

So as the University of Arizona scientist embarks on his journey to scale the 23,354-foot peak, he's making the trek an awareness campaign for aphasia and raising money for the UA's Aphasia Group.

Leonard, an assistant research scientist in the UA's department of hydrology and water resources, has been planning the trek for six months, but wanted to turn his efforts to more than just the mountain.
"For me, this is a really big thing, and I wanted to do something that's bigger than just me and this mountain. I told my wife and she immediately said, 'How about raising awareness for aphasia,'" Leonard says.

And just like that, High Asia for Aphasia was born.

Greg Leonard's wife, Barbara Leonard, is a speech language therapist who treats patients with aphasia, a communication disorder that can affect a person's ability to speak, write, read or understand language.

Barbara Leonard contacted her mentor, Janet Hawley, a clinical professor in the UA's department of speech, language, and hearing sciences, about how Greg Leonard's expedition could help. Raising awareness is a major part of the effort.

Aphasia, which means speechlessness in Greek, can result from a stroke, traumatic brain injury, progressive diseases or cancer. Patients typically have difficulty finding the words for what they want to say. Though the therapy may be long or intense, patients can recover or learn adaptation techniques for improved communication by working with a speech-language pathologist.

Much of Hawley's work at the UA deals with group therapy, a powerful approach that offers not only treatment aimed at developing speech and language skills and practice in a naturalistic communication environment, but also serves as the social fabric that is often lost when one has difficulty communicating with friends and family.

"We're constantly looking for better ways and more efficient and effective ways to treat patients," Hawley says. "People with aphasia feel misunderstood and frustrated. These are people who have been normal all their lives and suddenly had this catastrophic change. It gets tiring after a while to try and try and try to communicate. There is a subset that withdraws."

Hawley has about 30 to 50 patients at any given time. Since health insurance is often short-lived or doesn't cover group treatment, the program is frequently an out-of-pocket expense, so the department set up the Aphasia Scholarship Fund for those in financial need. Any money raised through Leonard’s expedition will go directly to the Aphasia Scholarship Fund.

"I became moved by this disorder, seeing people with all this intellect having such difficulty communicating," he says.

Leonard's aphasia climb could be the start of a larger effort at raising awareness and funds for aphasia research and therapy, Hawley says.

"There isn't anything big on a national level. We have a lot of graduate students who said, 'We could do this every year and make it a hike on Mt. Lemmon to keep it going.'"

This is Leonard's third visit to the Himalayas. His training regimen included extra hiking in the Santa Catalina mountains, augmented by plenty of time in the gym, doing both cardiovascular workouts and weight training.

Leonard departed Tucson for Delhi on June 14 and began a preparatory course of trekking and high-altitude acclimatization on June 18. The climbing period is scheduled for July 20-31.

"The greater the suffering I can put into the gym here, the more enjoyable the experience I'm going to have on the mountain," Leonard says. "This awareness campaign has really trumped my personal desire to get to the top of this mountain. I think about this condition if I'm having a hard day training. I've met some of these people, and I'm very inspired."