In May, Better Hearing and Speech Month is bringing awareness to every person’s right to communicate. At Craig Hospital, our Speech-Language Pathology Department staff are key members of our patients’ rehabilitation teams. For people who have sustained a brain or spinal cord injury, everyday activities like speaking, listening, writing, swallowing and problem solving can become skills that have to be relearned. The Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) Department staff work collaboratively across Craig’s departments to facilitate the growth of cognitive and behavioral skills, learning strategies, communication abilities, and swallow functions needed to achieve the goals of our patients and their families.
“Speech-language pathology helps patients relearn ways of doing things,” Director of Craig’s SLP Department Dr. Kimberly Frey says. “We might rehabilitate their swallow, work on ways that compensate or support people in doing things in different ways, help people communicate better and support their ability to understand information. And in SLP, we can tailor the materials, tasks and goals we identify with patients to be specific to that patient’s interests, needs and values.”
Although SLP is most often associated with rehabilitating speech and swallowing function, SLP therapists specialize in many different areas of therapy that are critical to engaging with the world around us, such as problem solving, learning new information, following instructions, airway management, and utilizing methods of communication like augmentative and alternative communication for patients cannot communicate in traditional ways.
“One of the biggest goals we try to achieve is making a personalized, unique therapy program for each patient,” says Allison Heintzelman, a speech-language pathologist at Craig. “So, if we can find things that they like to do and are passionate about, then we have the resources here at Craig to be able to do that, which is absolutely awesome.”
Often, personalized therapy means co-treating with many other departments at Craig, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, therapeutic recreation and respiratory therapy, to enrich and customize therapy sessions to help patients and their families work on the goals that are most important to them, like independence, connection and safety.
“I love working at Craig because we’re able to collaborate with other disciplines,” Katie Cassady, a Craig speech-language pathologist, says. “We have the ability to truly make our therapy contextually based and meaningful to the patient. We do a ton of co-treatments with other departments, so it’s easy to show the patient how something that seems like it would be just physical actually has a cognitive component to it. Craig gives us the opportunity to collaborate really effectively.”
For example, in collaboration with the Assistive Technology Lab team, speech-language pathologists can help patients learn how to control their environment and connect with their family and peers by using technology.
“There are a lot of specialty programs within the SLP Department for people to expand their knowledge and grow,” Karen Sims Engstrom, ST Clinical Mentor and Education Coordinator, says. “SLP plays a crucial role at Craig, not only helping people with eating, swallowing and communication, but also with skills they need to get back to work, like helping them access technology through assistive technology. For patients who can’t communicate in a traditional way, they can utilize specialized computer systems and custom software, using head movements or eye gaze to communicate on a computer what it is they want or need. Whether it’s how to access a phone or computer, turn on lights, or open and close a door, SLP and Assistive Technology can help with that.”
Family and community are key aspects of speech-language pathology therapy. Since communication and cognitive skills are integral to how people engage with their communities and express themselves and their needs, the SLP Department has many different approaches to rehabilitating and compensating for these functions.
“One of the big things that we do in SLP is allow our patients to engage in their rehabilitation program, engage with their family members, and have some sort of social network that allows them to communicate and have a deeper connection,” Allison says. “We have different techniques and approaches that help patients communicate with the world around them; that’s such a critical part of our lives.”
Kelly Boland, a Craig speech-language pathologist, adds, “Thinking in language is 24 hours a day. It’s how you find your passion. It’s how you make relationships. It’s who you are. And so, I think, bringing people back to their life is huge; it’s everything.”
The community patients find at Craig can play a significant role in rehabilitation, not only with peers but also with staff. “We chat, we smile, we laugh, we give each a hug,” Allison says. “It’s these bonds that you form with these patients that you just don’t expect. It’s life-changing for us and for them.”
With broad skillsets and considerable levels of experience, our SLP therapists bring a wide variety of specialties to the Craig team for our patients. “We have a group of therapists who are amazingly skilled, compassionate and dedicated, all of whom go above and beyond to really meet the needs of all of our patients and families,” Dr. Frey says. “We’re inspired by the patients and families with whom we work, the challenges that they overcome, and the dedication that they demonstrate to their recovery process.”