Larry Baum, retired president of Hastings Fiberglass Products, has learned to say his ABCs.

And he can count out loud to about 70.

Start a conversation and he’ll tell you about his three children, six grandchildren and even curse about his golf pro if you start talking golf. He needs a little help—for now—but as usual, the 83-year-old gets his point across.

Baum is learning to speak again after suffering a stroke in June 2019.

He’s been working with Spectrum Health Pennock speech therapist Kelsey Bolks since February.

“He’s the most motivated patient I’ve ever had,” Bolks said. “I’ve never met someone so driven.”

Baum was home recuperating from back surgery when the stroke occurred. His wife Earlene saw him collapse and go unconscious.

‘What is going on?’

“I tried to rouse him up, but he was just out,” Earlene said. “He couldn’t respond or anything. I thought, ‘What on earth is going on?’”

Earlene called family friend and retired doctor Jim Atkinson, who rushed over. Unable to wake Baum, he called an ambulance.

Earlene and Atkinson followed the ambulance to a Grand Rapids hospital emergency department.

“They turned on their lights and siren and started speeding like mad,” she said.

At the hospital, doctors determined Baum had suffered a stroke. A blood clot from his leg had traveled to his brain.

It left him unable to speak, or even swallow.

After a few days in the hospital, he went to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, where he would spend three weeks.

He received nutrition via a feeding tube.

He then transferred closer to home, to the rehabilitation center at Thornapple Manor in Hastings. There, he continued therapy for swallowing and speech.

“He couldn’t drink water for the longest time,” Earlene said. “It would go down into his lungs and it wouldn’t go into the right place. He was just dying for a good drink of water.”

He’s been home since August 2019.

At first, he made little progress talking.

He grew frustrated.

“He didn’t care whether he lived or died to start out with, when it first happened,” Earlene said.

“He was always such a talker,” she said. “At one point, he was the sales manager at our business, so he was always out with people and talking. That’s been the hardest thing for him. He can get so frustrated if he’s trying to tell me something and I can’t understand it.”

Starting over

Things started to improve in February when Baum began working with Bolks.

He became her first Hastings-area patient.

Bolks had just moved back to Grand Rapids to be closer to her family. She serves as the primary speech therapist at Spectrum Health Pennock.

She also works at Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital and Spectrum Health Hospitals Blodgett Hospital, providing outpatient speech therapy.

Other than a brief shutdown due to COVID-19, Bolks and Baum have worked together tirelessly three times each week.

“We’ve spent a lot of time together,” she said. “I’ve got quite a soft spot for him.”

The feeling is mutual.

“She’s helped me,” Baum said, breaking down with emotion. “I’m doing better.”

“He’s made quite a bit of progress,” Bolks said. “I’ve used different techniques to figure out what works best for him.”

Embracing technology

One tool that Baum has embraced in therapy is a Lingraphica TouchTalk augmentative communication device. It generates speech electronically.

The tablet features the use of graphic icons and words that help Baum with therapeutic exercises and customizable stories, names and activities that aid in communication with others.

“It’s been super helpful,” Bolks said. “Earlene has given me a lot of information and Larry and I work on navigating the device together.”

Video-assisted software from an apraxia app allows for a visual example of lips moving to form and say words.

“He does really well with a visual example,” Bolks said.

Baum taps a button and the device prompts him to practice a phrase. “Watch and listen. Good night,” it says, declaring the phrase for him to practice.

“We have a list of words and common phrases that he practices,” she said. “He’s told me that people seem to understand him better, which makes me feel like I’m doing my job right.”

But there’s lots of work still to be done.

“It’s really up and down from day to day,” Earlene said. “Some days he has a lot of trouble and you can’t make sense of what he’s trying to say. And other days he does well and things come out and you can understand him.”

Bolks agrees and said fatigue may play a part.

“Sometimes he’ll come in here and you can see he’s really tired and speech is much more difficult, but other days he’ll whip out full sentences,” Bolks said.

Golf, cars and life roll on

Baum is an avid golfer. In the activities category on the device, he has created icons and information about favorite courses—even an icon for his golf professional.

When he touches that icon, it shares an endearing and choice description of his golf buddy. He grins as the device shares that description aloud.

He’s a regular golfer at his home course, The Legacy—the former Hastings Country Club. Baum has had three holes in one and has traveled extensively to play the game, one of his many passions.

“He doesn’t golf to the same degree that he did before, but he still loves doing it,” Earlene said.

The couple, high school sweethearts, have been married 64 years. They also enjoy classic cars. Baum is a trustee at the nearby Gilmore Car Museum.

The Baums have also been leaders in philanthropy in the Hastings area. They recently made the lead gift to the newly constructed $12 million, 19,000-square-foot Baum Family Surgery Center at Spectrum Health Pennock.

Baum has made therapy a priority. He knows it could be years to recover fully.

The communication tablet has been a major focus of his therapy.

“We work every session on further customizing his device to his specific communication needs,” Bolks said. “The goal is to get him really familiar with those common phrases so those become almost automatic.

“He is very smart so he really benefits from placement cues,” she said. Placement cues teach him how to move his tongue and lips to make certain sounds. “And I can see him incorporating them within his speech.”

There’s no questioning his effort.

“He tries and tries and tries every single time,” she said. “It’s all him, I’m just giving him the tools.”