Healthy Conversations: Let’s Talk About Speech-Language Pathology

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It’s ironic that many people outside of healthcare don’t fully understand speech-language pathology—a profession devoted to helping improve communication.

“When I found out in college that you could make a career out of helping people communicate, I jumped on it and never looked back,” says Niki Tomitz, MS, CCC-SLP, Speech-Language Pathologist, Dignity Health, Yavapai Regional Medical Center (YRMC).

Tomitz is one of three professionals who comprise YRMC’s Speech Therapy team. Tomitz, Sean Gabaldon, MS, CF-SLP, and Andrea Woolstenhulme, MS, CCC-SLP, work with hospitalized patients at both YRMC West in Prescott and YRMC East in Prescott Valley. Team members also work with patients at the Outpatient Services Building West, on the campus of YRMC West.

During this episode of Healthy Conversations, Tomitz talks about the sometimes surprising and always important role of speech-language pathology in treating patients with myriad conditions.

Re-learning life skills
“One aspect of being a speech-language pathologist I’ve enjoyed is helping people re-learn life skills that they thought were lost forever,” Tomitz says.

That means assisting older adults recovering from serious medical events, facing progressive conditions or dealing with age-related issues. Some of those include:

Dysphagia is a swallowing disorder associated with many of these conditions. People with dysphagia find it difficult to chew and swallow, which can lead to dehydration, malnutrition or food and liquids going into the airway (aspiration) and causing pneumonia. How a YRMC speech-language pathologist treats dysphagia depends on the medical condition causing the swallowing disorder.

Tomitz and other YRMC speech-language pathologists evaluate patients’ dysphagia and develop individual treatment plans, which may include:

  • dietary changes
  • swallowing exercises to strengthen muscles
  • alternative swallowing strategies
  • posture changes to use when eating

“The first thing I ask someone working to recover their ability to swallow is, ‘What do you want to be able to eat again?’” explains Tomitz.

Her patients’ responses have varied from steak to popsicles to a roast beef sandwich. After her patients are cleared for that particular level of food or liquid, Tomitz personally delivers the food the person has been craving.

“It’s my all-time favorite thing to do for a patient,” she says.

Aphasia is a disorder that makes it difficult for people to speak, comprehend, read, write or use numbers. This condition is often the result of a stroke or brain injury. People with aphasia struggle to find the words they want to use and also find it difficult to understand what others are saying.

There are nine types of aphasia that YRMC’s speech-language pathologists are experts at diagnosing. They create individualized treatment plans to address each patient’s aphasia.

While aphasia relates to a person’s ability to understand or use words, apraxia is a motor-speech disorder that affects the lips, tongue and palate. People with apraxia may seem to be groping for their words. It also impacts the clarity and consistency of their speech.

“I tell my patients with apraxia that they are predictably unpredictable,” Tomitz says with a smile.

What else is in the SLP wheelhouse?
YRMC’s speech-language pathologists are skilled at treating many other conditions, including:

  • Voice disorders – Changes to how a person’s voice sounds, including their pitch, volume or quality.
  • Dysarthria – Weakness or tightness of the speech muscles, which causes slurred, quiet or harsh-sounding speech.
  • Cognitive communication disorders – These disorders are often related to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. YRMC’s speech-language pathologists work with both the patient and their family members.

To learn more about how YRMC’s speech-language pathology team can help you or someone you care about, ask your primary care physician or contact YRMC’s Physical Rehabilitation Services at (928) 771-5131.