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Astronaut Capt. Mark Kelly speaks at SCALE fundraiser

His wife, Gabby Giffords, has aphasia after being shot in head

By Larry Perl, lperl@tribune.com

11:28 AM EST, December 11, 2012

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Donald Cormack hasn't driven a car since his stroke last spring. He walks with a crutch. Most frustrating, he can hardly speak, because the words seem stuck in his head and it takes all of his energy to get them out.

"I talk so much, I have a headache," said Cormack, 53, of Charles Village.

Cormack has aphasia, a side effect of brain injuries, most commonly a stroke, which hamper communication skills. And he was among 850 people who attended a fundraiser Monday, Dec. 10 for the Snyder Center for Aphasia Life Enhancement, or SCALE, the only such center in Maryland.

Featuring as keynote speaker retired astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the benefit reception and speech at Beth El Congregation in Pikesville raised about $260,000, SCALE officials said.

The money will fund scholarships for SCALE clients, most of whom can't afford the center's $500 a month tuition, officials said.

SCALE, at 5910 York Road, offers communication groups and computer classes, as well as interactive activities in photography, art and gardening, among other areas.

Giffords, too, has aphasia after being shot in the head nearly two years ago. Kelly said in his speech that he had never heard of aphasia until his wife survived an attack by Jared Lee Loughner at a constituent event in Tuscon.

"I saw how frustrating (aphasia) was for Gabby," he said. And after two months, "I realized, this is going to take a lot of patience."

Since then, "I've gotten a little bit more patient," said Kelly. "I'm still working on it today."

He said Giffords, who had part of her skull removed, has given him strength through her courage, and tells him constantly, "Fight, fight, fight."

She keeps a piece of her skull in a plastic container, "as a reminder."

When Giffords returned to Washington in August to vote on raising the federal debt ceiling, "I don't think I've ever been so proud of somebody in my life," her husband said.

At a press conference earlier, Kelly said his wife has trouble speaking the words she is thinking.

"It's the transmission she struggles with every day," Kelly said, adding that it shows "the importance of organizations like SCALE."

Many SCALE members at the benefit said they felt a connection to Giffords, and by association Kelly.

"She has aphasia. She knows what it's about," said Angie Edmonds, 56, of Ellicott City, a stroke victim.

Cormack stood in line for a half-hour to have Kelly autograph a copy of "Gabby: A Story of Courage," the bestselling book that Kelly and Giffords wrote together.

Also waiting on line was John Gartner, 42, of Towson, who suffered a stroke at 32. Speaking one or two words at time, Gartner said he enjoys computer and photography at SCALE, and made clear how much he thinks SCALE has helped him.

"Better," Gartner said. "Better words."