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Word blindness: Kindergarten reading specialist suddenly loses her ability to read

Case of “Teacher Interrupted” reported in the journal Neurology

MAYWOOD, Ill. - The journal Neurology is reporting an unusual and heart-rending case of a reading teacher who suddenly lost her ability to read.

She was diagnosed with alexia without agraphia, also known as “word blindness.” It’s a rare neurological syndrome in which a patient loses the ability to read but can still write and understand the spoken word.

The case report was written by Jason Cuomo; Murray Flaster, MD, PhD; and José Biller, MD, of Loyola University Medical Center.

The condition came on suddenly while the 40-year-old kindergarten teacher and reading specialist was in front of her classroom. She couldn’t make sense of her lesson plan, and her attendance sheet was as incomprehensible as hieroglyphs. She also couldn’t tell time.

The condition was due to a stroke that probably was caused by an unusual type of blood vessel inflammation within the brain called primary central nervous system angiitis.

Once a passionate reader, she was determined to learn how to read again. But none of the techniques that she had taught her students – phonics, sight words, flash cards, writing exercises, etc. – worked. So she taught herself a remarkable new technique that employed tactile skills that she still possessed.

Here’s how her technique works: When shown a word, she looks at the first letter. Although she can clearly see it, she cannot recognize it. So beginning with the letter A, she traces each letter of the alphabet over the unknown letter until she gets a match. For example, when shown the word Mother, she will trace the letters of the alphabet, one at a time, until she comes to M and finds a match. Three letters later, she guesses correctly that the word is Mother.

“To see this curious adaption in practice is to witness the very unique and focal nature of her deficit,” the authors write.

Perhaps even more remarkable, the woman can have an emotional reaction to a word, even if she can’t read it. Shown the word “dessert,” she says “Oooh, I like that.” But when shown “asparagus,” she says, “Something’s upsetting me about this word."

Shown two personal letters that came in the mail, she correctly determined which was sent by a friend of her mother’s and which was sent by one of her own friends. “When asked who these friends were, she could not say, but their names nevertheless provoked an emotional response that served as a powerful contextual clue,” the authors write.

What she most misses is reading books to children. She teared up as she told the authors: “One day my mom was with the kids in the family, and they were all curled up next to each other, and they were reading. And I started to cry because that was something I couldn’t do.”

Loyola University Health System (LUHS) is a member of Trinity Health. Based in the western suburbs of Chicago, LUHS is a quaternary care system with a 61-acre main medical center campus, the 36-acre Gottlieb Memorial Hospital campus and more than 30 primary and specialty care facilities in Cook, Will and DuPage counties. The medical center campus is conveniently located in Maywood, 13 miles west of the Chicago Loop and 8 miles east of Oak Brook, Ill. The heart of the medical center campus is a 559-licensed-bed hospital that houses a Level 1 Trauma Center, a Burn Center and the Ronald McDonald® Children's Hospital of Loyola University Medical Center. Also on campus are the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, Loyola Outpatient Center, Center for Heart & Vascular Medicine and Loyola Oral Health Center as well as the LUC Stritch School of Medicine, the LUC Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing and the Loyola Center for Fitness. Loyola's Gottlieb campus in Melrose Park includes the 255-licensed-bed community hospital, the Professional Office Building housing 150 private practice clinics, the Adult Day Care, the Gottlieb Center for Fitness, Loyola Center for Metabolic Surgery and Bariatric Care and the Loyola Cancer Care & Research at the Marjorie G. Weinberg Cancer Center at Melrose Park.

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