Health column: Speech Language Pathologists at MRH help folks young and old connect |

Health column: Speech Language Pathologists at MRH help folks young and old connect

Health Column
Memorial Regional Health

Like so many others, Speech Language Pathology is a medical discipline focused on helping people get healthy, happy and comfortable.

But speech therapy also has a unique focus, in that much of the work of a speech language pathologist involves helping a patient connect.

From children to adults, including the very young and the very old, Memorial Regional Health’s two experienced and passionate speech language pathologists are prepared to treat all kinds of diagnoses, all with the aim of improving any of several critical health markers.

“The main thing I do is help kids find a way to communicate their needs and wants,” said Colleen Boyle, MRH’s pediatric SLP. “There’s multiple purposes to language — there’s pragmatic, for relationships, getting your needs met, asking questions. Developing a way for children to be able to communicate effectively — and speech sound disorders are the same thing, it’s about being clearer with speech so they can effectively communicate — it’s about connection. That’s a value that’s important to me, connection, so to be able to help little humans connect more effectively, that’s cool.”

For MRH’s Joan Parnell, who works with adults, the needs are often quite different, but the result can be just as rewarding.

“Adults can feel frustrated,” Parnell said of her patients. “They’re like, ‘This was never a problem. I’ve been fine for 75 years. Swallowing for 75 years, doing my checking account, remembering my appointments without having to write it down.’ It takes encouragement, and some counseling, to be able to accept the new you, where it might not be who you were when you were 30. Sometimes that’s a grieving process. But when you can help with that, it’s such an impact.”

Speech language pathology at MRH involves a broad array of focus areas. Standards of the practice separate these into nine sections:

  • Articulation
  • Fluency
  • Voice and resonance
  • Language
  • Cognition
  • Hearing
  • Swallowing
  • Social Communication
  • Communication modalities

Boyle and Parnell don’t work across all nine areas, but between the two of them, they cover a vast swath of the needs of patients in this region. In a larger population center, most practitioners would only cover one specialty. Not so in Northwest Colorado.

“You can go to Children’s in Denver and they have hundreds of speech pathologists on staff, each specializing in a single thing,” Boyle said. “I do as close to all of it as I can. I’m the sole pediatric provider at the hospital.”

Boyle, working with children, focuses primarily on articulation, phonology disorders, speech sounds and language disorders, which include content and grammar usage. She also works with a number of kids who are non-speaking, including some with autism diagnoses, Down syndrome, or other challenges.

Through careful evaluation and numerous treatment approaches, Boyle works to help these young people find ways to communicate and connect with their world.

“It’s so rewarding,” she said. “Seeing the relationship kids develop with their families, seeing them succeed — there’s a motto I teach kids, because I’m asking them to do hard things. I validate that it’s hard, and I have them say, ‘I can do hard things.’ And kids, they’ll look at me and they’ll say it. ‘I can do hard things.’ And it’s more than speech. It’s helping them persevere and learn to do what’s hard. That’s awesome.”

Parnell, who’s been working in the field since the early 1990s, says that working with adults usually involves two major areas of focus: Swallowing and cognition.

“Speech therapy took over swallowing in the late 80s, early 90s,” Parnell said. “It was never something anybody really focused on until about 1990. Before that, patients would usually just die from aspiration and pneumonia.”

Cognition involves folks who’ve had strokes, suffer from Parkinson’s Disease or dementia, or who experienced brain damage from something like a heart attack. Helping those folks relearn how to communicate requires a gentle touch, Parnell said, but can be extremely rewarding.

“One of my very first patients, she’d had a really severe stroke, and to communicate, we had to have her squeeze our hands,” Parnell said. “When the family came, they were so grateful to be able to talk to her in some form for her last few days.”

And, for those who have a life ahead of them and need help connecting with those who are a part of it, Parnell said the tools to help patients are always improving.

“We understand these days more than we used to that the brain can be rewired,” she said. “It used to be thought it was hard and fast. This is your damage, we can’t fix it. Just compensate. Now they have more theories and approaches to rewire and use a different path than we used to. It’ll get better and better.”

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