In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

March 10, 2016

Zachary Finds His Words — and Inspires His Grandma to Write a Book

By In the Loop

Ruthann Gansen-Brekke decided to write "Zachary Finds His Words" to raise awareness for apraxia and honor Zachary Gansen for his hard work.Some kids get toys or candy from their grandparents. Zachary Gansen got something even better: A book, in which he is the central character. Zachary's grandma, Ruthann Gansen-Brekke, wrote a book about him called "Zachary Finds His Words." It's a story about childhood apraxia of speech — a condition Ruthann, an administrative assistant in Nursing Education at Mayo Clinic, knew nothing about when Zachary was diagnosed with the disorder just after he turned 2. "We were like deer in the headlights," she says. "We'd never heard of apraxia."

The family soon became experts on the condition, an uncommon disorder in which the brain has trouble communicating directions to the muscles that move the lips, jaws and tongue.

Zachary's parents, Jeff (a Mayo employee) and Heather Gansen, initially thought their son was just a late talker. But a family get-together changed their perception. A cousin close to Zachary's age "talked up a storm," says Ruthann, while Zachary "didn't say a word." Jeff and Heather had Zachary evaluated and soon received the diagnosis. "It was very scary to hear that your son has 'something,'" says Jeff, an event support specialist at Mayo Clinic. "Even scarier when you have no idea what it is."

Ruthann tells us she and Heather "made a mistake and Googled apraxia." They were devastated to read stories about children who never learned to speak. Fortunately, Zachary's story would have a happier ending. "Once he started seeing a speech therapist, it was apparent that he was determined to start talking," Jeff says. Slowly, with much effort and support from his family, including big sister, Lydia, Zachary began to find his words. He's now doing so well that recently "after four years of speech therapy, Zach was told that he didn't need it anymore," says Jeff.

Ruthann tells us that she decided to write "Zachary Finds His Words" to "raise awareness for apraxia and honor Zach for his hard work." The book, illustrated by Nicolle Rosemark, tells Zachary's story from big sister Lydia's perspective. All proceeds are being donated to the Childhood Apraxia of Speech Association of North America, an organization Zachary's family and friends have also supported through their participation in an annual Walk for Children with Apraxia held in the Twin Cities. This year, Ruthann is organizing a similar walk in Byron, Minnesota, where Zachary is a first-grader at Byron Elementary School. The walk is being planned for June. Anyone interested can contact Ruthann.

Ruthann's efforts don't surprise her son. "She has always been a very loving person, and her favorite hobby is to give," Jeff says. "It's an honor to be able to call her my mom." And what does Zachary think about starring in his own book? Jeff says talking about the book puts "a large grin" on his son's face. At a book signing in Ruthann's hometown of Riceville, Iowa, he told her, "Grandma, I'm kind of a celebrity." We bet those words, like all of Zachary's words, were music to her ears.

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Tags: Apraxia, Childhood Apraxia of Speech, Employee Stories, Jeff Gansen, Patient Stories, Ruthann Gansen-Brekke, Speech Pathology

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