To show how a speech-language pathologist (SLP) and a patient can work together to overcome even the toughest challenges, VNSNY Senior SLP Laura B. mentions a former patient named Doris*. At age 52, Doris had head and neck cancer, which left her with only three-quarters of her tongue. After the cancer spread to her larynx, complications from chemotherapy and radiation required a tracheostomy tube to be placed in her neck and a feeding tube in her stomach. When Laura began treating her, Doris was considerably underweight and depressed. “Her cancer therapy had left her voice so raspy that she rarely spoke,” recalls Laura. “She really felt she would never eat, drink, or speak normally again.”
Even though everything she did took tremendous effort, Doris went on to have 30 therapy sessions with Laura over the course of ten weeks. Outside of those sessions, Laura also devised a home exercise program. At first it was difficult to keep Doris motivated, but Laura continued to stress the need to put forth her best effort if she wanted to improve. She also reminded Doris of the goal she’d set at the start—“to be able to drink a cup of coffee in the morning and eat a juicy cheeseburger as a treat.” Encouraged by the orders of her “drill sergeant,” Doris began faithfully practicing her voice and swallowing exercises multiple times daily. Gradually, her voice became stronger and swallowing grew easier.
Once her therapy was completed, Doris underwent tests to reassess her swallowing. These tests showed that although the tracheostomy tube would need to stay in place, she could now eat and drink on her own. That same day, Doris phoned Laura from a diner to report that she’d just eaten her first hamburger in more than a year. “I’ll remember that day for the rest of my life,” says Laura.
Laura’s primary territory is Central Queens—the same borough she was born and raised in. A self-described “people person,” she’s always relished interacting with others. During her 11 years with VNSNY, Laura has mentored other VNSNY SLPs in her role as senior therapist, and has also treated more than 3,000 patients for communication, cognitive, and swallowing disorders.
Since her patients’ medical conditions can vary greatly, each treatment is tailored to the individual. Her recent roster of patients included Judi*, whose voice was so weakened by Parkinson’s that she had difficulty communicating with her husband. Laura used the Lee Silverman Voice Technique—a method designed specifically for people with Parkinson’s—to help Judi improve her projection and volume.
“Laura brings out the best in me,” says Judi. “The amount of education she provides is above and beyond.”
For another patient whose recent stroke left him struggling to summon words, Laura drew on her knowledge of his interests to devise word retrieval strategies based on cars, sports, books, and other favorite topics. For an office worker who suffered vocal cord paralysis after heart surgery, Laura’s therapy included breathing exercises as well as swallowing exercises and maneuvers like the “super-supraglottic swallow” to facilitate eating and drinking.
Laura acknowledges that her work is emotionally challenging but highly rewarding. “The ability to independently communicate and eat is so essential to a person’s quality of life,” she says. “It’s a privilege to work with patients in their greatest time of need. As stressful as it can be, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
* Patients’ names have been changed for privacy.