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'I Want To Do More': Gen. Michael Hayden On Living With Speech-Inhibiting Aphasia

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This week, I paid a visit to the home of General Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency. I asked him to tell me about the day, coming up on three years ago, when his world turned upside down.

MICHAEL HAYDEN: So I was right there - about 10 feet.

KELLY: You're pointing toward the dining room behind us. Yeah.

M HAYDEN: That's exactly correct. I was doing something, and then I fell, and I couldn't get up. Jeanine was downstairs, was doing exercises. But gee, I couldn't call her, you know?

KELLY: Jeanine is Jeanine Hayden, his wife of 53 years. And the moment he is describing is the Tuesday before Thanksgiving 2018, when he suffered a massive stroke. It's left him with a condition called aphasia, which makes communication difficult. Aphasia can affect a person's ability both to express and to understand speech. I wanted to know what that has been like for a retired four-star general accustomed to commanding a room when he walks in.

Well, he agreed to talk. And this week, in the front hall of his home in D.C.'s Northern Virginia suburbs, General Hayden greeted me in his wheelchair. Then, he and Mrs. Hayden sat beside each other on a cream-colored sofa in their living room and talked about what's harder now.

M HAYDEN: Well, it's very, very different. For example, this - my...

JEANINE HAYDEN: Right side.

M HAYDEN: My right side is OK.

J HAYDEN: No, your left side is OK, actually.

M HAYDEN: No, my left side is OK. But my right side, not a - not too good. And, of course, this doesn't work at all.

KELLY: Your right arm.

M HAYDEN: Yes.

KELLY: You're right-handed?

M HAYDEN: Well, now I am.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Left-handed, yeah.

M HAYDEN: Yeah.

KELLY: As you can hear, General Hayden sometimes says right when he means left. That's the aphasia. So is his struggle to read a book or other printed material.

M HAYDEN: Today, I was in the kitchen, and I wanted to read the morning paper. I can't do that. I just can't do it.

KELLY: Here's the thing, though - aphasia does not affect intelligence. General Hayden can think as well as he ever did. He just can't say what he thinks. Here's another thing - he's doing therapy. He attends an aphasia support group over Zoom on Saturday mornings. He's fighting, and he's getting better.

M HAYDEN: I worked hard, and I got the DMV to say, OK, you can do that now. So I - I'm trying to say I walk, though what I want to say is I drive. I drive.

KELLY: You drive, yeah.

M HAYDEN: Yeah, for three weeks now, so be careful.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Congratulations.

That's another thing that's fully intact - his sense of humor. You can't help, though, but be struck if you listen back to what General Hayden sounded like just a few years ago, like here, the last time I interviewed him live on NPR. He had criticized then-President Trump, and Trump had responded by threatening to revoke his security clearance. This is three months before the stroke.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

M HAYDEN: If you view yourself to be the fact witness, just telling things as you believe them to be, it gets increasingly difficult in the face of a White House that says so many things that are unrelated to objective reality.

KELLY: Well, let me just get you on the record here. If this is, as some have suggested, an attempt by the president to silence his critics, will you be silenced?

M HAYDEN: Oh, of course not.

KELLY: Aphasia hasn't silenced him either. But for a man who was so quick on his feet, it has become much, much harder to get the words out.

I imagine - and I want to ask this sensitively - that when you can't speak so well, people who don't know you, don't know who you are...

M HAYDEN: Yeah.

KELLY: ...(Laughter) don't know what you can do, that they think you're dumb, and they treat you like that.

M HAYDEN: Well...

KELLY: Has that happened?

M HAYDEN: Not yet.

KELLY: Good.

M HAYDEN: But Jeanine said, OK, you have to get a thing every time when you go to - on the car - in our car. And she has a thing, saying, I'm sorry, read this, please.

KELLY: So it's a card you can show someone.

M HAYDEN: Yes. Maybe I can do it, so it's not a problem, but maybe I can't. For example, the cops are, you know - oh, the cops - here. Read this, please.

KELLY: Do you have it? What does it say?

M HAYDEN: Here you go.

J HAYDEN: So it says, please read this. I have aphasia from a stroke. Aphasia means I have trouble understanding you, reading, writing and speaking. It is a medical condition. I am intelligent but need some help with language. This can be frustrating for me. And on the back, it says, to help me, I may confuse yes/no answers. Give me a minute to respond, shout - shut off loud noises so I can concentrate, ask me if I understand, give me eye contact when speaking. Call my caregiver for information. And that's - an emergency contact is on the front of the card.

KELLY: And it's a little laminated card...

J HAYDEN: Yeah.

M HAYDEN: Yeah.

KELLY: ...That someday you may have to use.

M HAYDEN: Oh, yeah.

KELLY: General Hayden wants to raise awareness about aphasia. He hosted an event this summer through the Hayden Center - that's the national security forum he founded - big panel of speakers headlined Understanding Aphasia. The former CIA director says he is thinking about how to advocate for others who've had a stroke, who maybe feel isolated, who were not, as he considers himself, lucky.

M HAYDEN: Very much so because I - Jeanine was with me. The kids were with me and so on. You know, every once in a while, I - I'm sad, OK? But mainly, no, I want to do more.

KELLY: More - he wants to get back to more public speaking. And the Haydens want to take a cruise, a river cruise in Europe. In the meantime, he is still working on his recovery, on coaxing the words out.

J HAYDEN: Mike has trouble with numbers. That's one of the effects of aphasia for him. That doesn't affect everybody that way, but it does affect a lot of people that way. And so he often has to give his birth date when he's going to see a doctor or something, and he'll go...

M HAYDEN: January, February, March.

J HAYDEN: He'll do one, two, three.

M HAYDEN: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 - 17 - 1945.

J HAYDEN: And when he does that, he manages to get out the 1945. And I often say to people, aren't you glad he doesn't have to count for that number?

KELLY: (Laughter).

M HAYDEN: By the way, that's only recently.

KELLY: Yeah.

M HAYDEN: OK - because I couldn't do it.

KELLY: I can see the pride in your eyes.

M HAYDEN: Yeah, yeah.

KELLY: You had to fight to get there, and you did it.

J HAYDEN: What else couldn't you do that I told you you had to do before you came home from the hospital?

M HAYDEN: Yeah, what's her name.

KELLY: You couldn't say your wife's name.

M HAYDEN: No.

J HAYDEN: So I told him he couldn't come home (laughter) from the hospital until he could say my name. Now, I didn't really mean that, but he did. He managed to do it.

M HAYDEN: Yeah.

KELLY: He did manage it. And I wouldn't bet against that cruise happening either.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS AMAN'S "SIMPLE THINGS")

KELLY: Michael and Jeanine Hayden, speaking to us at their home in northern Virginia two years and nine months after his stroke.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS AMAN'S "SIMPLE THINGS")

KELLY: Well, thank you.

M HAYDEN: OK.

KELLY: This has been a pleasure.

M HAYDEN: Oh, that's very nice...

KELLY: Thank you for taking the time.

M HAYDEN: ...So thank you.

J HAYDEN: Thank you very much.

KELLY: Thank you both.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS AMAN'S "SIMPLE THINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.