Stroke survivor Tony Petrasich's power of speech is being helped via singing in a choir.

The Auckland man suffered a stroke at age 32 - eventually being found at his home a day after the stroke hit.

He spent two months in Auckland Hospital, the first in a coma. Three months followed in a rehabilitation centre at Point Chevalier and after that, eight months in a half-way home.

For six months he was in a wheelchair and he had to re-learn how to walk and how to talk.


The haemorrhagic stroke - the less common type, in which there is bleeding into the brain - happened in 2000. Petrasich, now 50, believes he was at increased stroke risk from a genetic disorder of the blood vessels called Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome.

"I'm having a good day," he says, welcoming me into his small, rented flat in West Auckland.

He shakes hands with his left hand. His right was left "dead" by the stroke. His right leg, too, is disabled, although he can walk, but not run. Two walking sticks stand near the door and he gets around the city on public transport.

A weekly engagement that has become a crucial part of Petrasich's life is choir practice across town at the University of Auckland's Tamaki campus.

The Celebration Choir giving a performance. Photo / supplied
The Celebration Choir giving a performance. Photo / supplied

He joined the Celebration Choir, a form of music therapy for people with speech or language problems caused by brain disorders, 11 years ago.

Because speech comes from the left side of the brain, and music generally comes from the right, singing can "re-wire" the damaged part of the brain and help in recovery of speech and language.

What would Petrasich's life be like without the choir? "Boring. Completely different," he says emphatically.

The stroke left him with aphasia, a language problem. For weeks he couldn't verbalise his thoughts at all and had to point and gesticulate.


Even now, his speech sometimes gets "blasted out [of his mouth] so I'm not sure what I'm saying".

"The brain; it's all up there, but someone has given it a good shake, so, often, [it's] all over the place."

Numbers are even harder and colours get jumbled up too - "I say red instead of blue".

In conversation, he keeps a small, spiral-bound notebook and pencil nearby, writing with his left hand - with some difficulty, as he was right-handed - any numbers he uses in sentences. It's a back-up, to confirm for the listener that he said the numbers he intended.

Petrasich says that as well as helping his language and making him feel positive, the choir is an important source of social contact.

The choir has 35 members with neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease, stroke, dementia, a brain tumour, or a traumatic brain injury - plus 10 family members or carers and five volunteers.

They perform, often at rest homes and during open days at the university's Centre for Brain Research.

Alison Talmage, a music therapist and University of Auckland PhD candidate who works with the Celebration Choir. Photo / supplied
Alison Talmage, a music therapist and University of Auckland PhD candidate who works with the Celebration Choir. Photo / supplied

Music therapist and PhD student Alison Talmage, who works with the choir, says academic studies have shown singing in a choir can help to deal with the speech/language problems of people with neurological disorders as well as boosting confidence.

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Petrasich says many of the choir members had badly damaged brains.

"A lot of these people they can't speak. But six months down the line they are singing and happy and they are actually talking.

"People don't even realise. You have to tell them, 'Your speaking is really good'. People would come up to me [and say], 'Your speaking is really good."

He says the choir sings a wide range of music. Some of his favourites are songs by the rock bands Uriah Heep and Van Halen, but he's not so keen on the Beatles tunes they are practising at present.

"Before my stroke, I would never sing. Radio in the background - I didn't like that. The fact I'm singing now is funny almost."