Speech – Language Pathology: More Than Just Speech

Clinical Expertise

by Michelle Hoefnagel, M.S., CCC-SLP, Isabel C. Lawton, M.S., CCC-SLP | Jul 27, 2017

Time and time again, when I introduce myself to a new patient they will tell me they are able to speak just fine. This gives me the opportunity to explain exactly what a speech-language pathologist (SLP) does. Within moments, they go from thinking they have no need for speech therapy services to being excited to improve their voice, breathing, thinking, memory and swallowing.

I like to tell people that Speech Therapy works on everything from the lungs up. We help people with respiration needed for breath support for speaking and endurance. We also help with exercises needed for strengthening. We make sure all of the muscles of the face and neck work the way they are supposed to, often helping bring back people’s smiles. We help people with swallowing difficulties so they can get back to eating the things they love. We work on hearing and vision and how both impact communication and cognition. We help people with speech and language (that’s the obvious one…it’s in our job title), but not just what people say. We help with what they are saying, how clearly they are saying it and what they understand. And lastly, we work on cognition including all of those thinking skills like attention, memory, organization and planning that help us be independent and happy in our everyday lives. Once I explain this, my patients quickly understand there is more to speech therapists than they realize.

Once we convince a patient our services can benefit them, the next step is to identify their goals. Building rapport and getting to know a patient in order to identify their goals and develop a plan of care requires some finesse. It almost feels like a dance of give and take. Sometimes the dance flows and other times I feel like we accidentally step on one another’s toes. This is one of my favorite challenges because I really get to know each person so I can figure out the best way to help them.

It’s so important to find out what really motivates our patients. Once, we had a patient who was obsessed with dogs. He was having a really hard time communicating but any time we were around the therapy dogs, all of a sudden the words came right out. We ended up working with the therapy dogs often to build his language skills. Eventually, he was able to communicate with people, not just pets!

I now look forward to the awkward “I speak just fine” conversations because it provides an opportunity to highlight the importance of an SLP for improving and restoring communication, swallowing and cognition. I am grateful every day for the opportunities that I have to help others by doing what I love. Some of the most meaningful experiences in our lives involve communicating with others – telling stories about the exciting things we’ve done, comforting someone, sharing a delicious meal, working to solve an important problem – the list goes on. My job as an SLP allows me to help people do these things. From helping people say, “I love you” to their family members for the first time after a stroke or eating for the first time after a total laryngectomy, this field is ever rewarding and provides lots of room for growth and skill development. There is no better feeling than that!

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