An impact beyond words

Beloved communications instructor faces uncertain future after rare diagnosis

“Some of you may have noticed something is wrong with me.”

The message Lisa Sisk sent in October 2018 explained that for the past six months, something had been happening to her.

At first, it was hesitations, long stretches of silence. Words rose to the tip of her tongue — then stopped. But it wasn’t that different from the brain fog she sometimes got with her fibromyalgia, so she found different words. People jumped in to complete her sentences. As Sisk says, she “always could cover for it.”

But unlike brain fog, what was happening to her kept getting worse.

A few days before sending the message to her colleagues in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, the senior instructor met with a specialist and got an official diagnosis: primary progressive aphasia, a degenerative neurological disorder that affects communication. Cognitive therapy may slow the symptoms, but Sisk will eventually lose the ability to speak.

Her email was brief and her closing was subdued. “It’s ironic that I make my living with words but can’t find them,” she said. She was still trying to process the news herself.

See my grammar document

Scroll through Sisk’s social media and you’ll notice a trend.

“Dinner with my favorite professor and mentor,” reads a post from one alumnus. His arm is draped around her shoulders in the accompanying photo.

“Someone recently asked me who was my best teacher in the J-school,” reads another. “My response was, ‘Oh, that’s easy... Lisa Sisk.’”

Since joining the faculty nearly 20 years ago, she’s made her mark on thousands of budding public relations practitioners — and on their writing.

In Sisk’s public relations campaign and writing classes, grades hinge on the memorization of her infamous 18-page grammar document. Its rules are straightforward. Misspell a client’s name and earn a zero. New events are inaugural, not first annual. Use “because,” not “due to.”

Corrected assignments — and there are always corrections — come back with “SMGD” scrawled across the top: “See my grammar document.” Wise students heed her warning; mistakes cost more as the semester progresses.

“I’ll never forget the first paper I handed in to her,” says Chris Suggs, ‘14. “You couldn’t see it there was so much red on it.”

Another former student, Chris Heubner, bought Sisk a custom-made “See My Grammar Document” stamp to save her some time.

“He said that I bled on his papers,” Sisk says, laughing.

Hers is a no-excuses, sink-or-swim approach to teaching the art of public relations. For many students, it stokes frustration, even anger. But coming from Lisa Sisk — the person who dedicated a previous career to rehabilitating wildlife, who secretly raised litters of rescue kittens out of her old office in the Carolina Coliseum, who fights her way to the front of the faculty line at graduation so that she can hug each of her students — it also pushes them to be better.

“Her heart – it’s one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever seen,” says Nathan Haber, ‘05. “She cares so deeply about life, about the world and her students. She makes those connections with all of her students, but she always makes you feel like you are the most special one.”

‘Something is seriously wrong’

It was during a visit with her brother’s family in September that Sisk realized she could no longer ignore what was going on.

“I just couldn’t get the words out,” she says. “I just broke down crying. And my brother said, ‘Something is seriously wrong.’”

Back at home, an MRI detected atrophy on the left side of her brain. Sisk was referred to a neurologist, then sought a visit with Julius Fridriksson, director of the university’s Aphasia Lab. Each appointment revealed more answers.

Aphasia isn’t a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. Doctors have told Sisk she has the logopenic variant, a type associated with impaired word retrieval and slower speech. Her mind will continue to function just as it always has, but she will gradually have more difficulty recalling specific words. For now, her language issues occur mostly when speaking, but written words will slowly leave her, too.

Though the prognosis has been devastating, she acknowledges that, in her case, it could be worse – another variant causes issues with grammar.

“Thank God it’s not the grammar one,” she says with a laugh.

But language is a critical part of her job. The grammar document even has a section on the importance of the spoken word. An entry on page 15 reads: “As public relations professionals, we must be highly articulate.”

Fridriksson helped her begin treatments at the university’s Speech and Hearing Research Center. But there are still many unknowns. Sisk worries that the condition could be passed to her children or granddaughter – whether it’s hereditary still remains to be seen. And because no one can tell her how quickly it will progress or how effective therapy will be, she’s left to navigate an uncertainty that’s as unsettling as the silences that got her there.

Then there’s her future in the classroom. 

“What she’s most concerned about, I think, is her ability to still impact kids,” Suggs says. “I want every kid to get the experience I did with her. And that’s what she wants.”

Learning to adapt

Sisk was determined to do everything she could to keep teaching. And for Andrea Tanner, then-director of the SJMC, the feeling was mutual. 

“Lisa is one of our most beloved professors,” Tanner says. “She’s been instrumental in the lives of so many students and faculty during her many years with us. I wanted to do whatever I could to help her.”

Tanner arranged for Sisk to have modified duties for fall 2018. She lined up another professor to teach her graduate-level course, and she found her a graduate assistant, a voice to help fill the silence when her words wouldn’t come.

Sisk would have to adapt, too. PowerPoint lectures and Blackboard communications made for smoother interactions, meaning come spring, she’d have to transition to online teaching. Technology-based instruction can be daunting for teachers who thrive in the classroom, but luckily for Sisk, she had already become something of an online-instruction pioneer, training with the university’s Center for Teaching Excellence in 2017 and even taking home a Garnet Apple Award in 2018 for her online teaching efforts.

But she still had to get through the fall.

That’s where her colleagues came in. Augie Grant, a fellow SJMC professor, was co-teaching a communications course for engineering students with Sisk. As director of the CTE, he was the perfect person to help her navigate the ways technology such as PowerPoint could complement her lectures.

Her heart — it’s one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever seen. She cares so deeply about life, about the world and her students. She makes those connections with all of her students, but she always makes you feel like you are the most special one.

Nathan Haber, ‘05

“She’s been a colleague for almost 20 years,” Grant says. “I’ve learned a lot about teaching from her, and when things get rough, I just want to be there to give her an outlet, listen to her, help her find solutions.”

Most importantly, Sisk needed patience. At the beginning of the semester, she told her students to expect the long pauses and to speak up when they could.

“I just said, you know, I need you to help me. If you can come up with the word I’m looking for, we can make a game out of it.”

Senior Heather Jackson was in Sisk’s public relations campaigns class when she broke the news to them.

“We all kind of sat there for a minute,” Jackson says. “And then we were like, ‘We love you and we’re here to support you through this. We don’t think any less of you because you have to take a step back or you’re having to teach from a PowerPoint. We’re here because we want to take a class with you and we’re going to support you the way you support us.’”

‘No matter how we get you’

Senior Tye Williams is taking both of Sisk’s online classes this semester. They’re still just as tough, but the new format has made participation easier.

“In our era, a lot of students really enjoy online classes because you don’t have the hassle of finding parking every day,” Williams says.

In the past, the senior instructor’s classes always filled as soon as registration opened – that didn’t change with her shift to online. In fact, when she broke the news of her diagnosis to her students last fall, they assured her it wouldn’t.

“Every one of my students said, ‘We want you no matter how we get you,’” Sisk says.

Even though she isn’t teaching on campus, she hasn’t become a stranger. She meets with colleagues, hugs students in the halls, catches up with visiting alumni over lunch. As long as her words will allow her, Sisk wants life – and her teaching career – to go on as usual.

“She’s going to find a way to make this work,” Suggs says. “It’s not going to be easy, and that struggle’s going to be one of the hardest she’s ever dealt with. But she’s going to be doing it for her kids. I’ve got no doubt she’s going to make it through.”

Learn more

Learn more about primary progressive aphasia from UofSC researcher Julius Fridriksson.

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