Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Speech Therapy Program

A story I wrote about speech therapy on the ship.

Speech Therapy on the Africa Mercy

“Speech is power: speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
The ability to communicate is powerful, allowing us to share ideas and engage in relationships. There are many mediums through which we communicate, including imagery, touch, and the written word. But our most frequent, and arguably most powerful, channel of communication is speech. Speech allows us to quickly articulate emotions, opinions, and thoughts. It’s a powerful ability.
Some patients onboard the Africa Mercy are discovering this power for the first time.
Maxillofacial operations are an integral part of the surgical schedule during Mercy Ships 2009 Field Service in Benin. Many maxillofacial patients, particularly those with cleft lips/palates, have spent their lives communicating with impeded speech. Facial malformations of the oral and nasal passages, in conjunction with weakened lip muscles, make it impossible to articulate normal sounds. Impediments can range in severity from difficulty producing a few sounds to a complete inability to form understandable words.
Living with a speech impediment is embarrassing and frustrating. Often children are not sent to school because they can’t properly communicate. This lack of education stagnates their mental and relational development, causing problems that will follow them into their adult years. Restoring speech to a child can spare him or her from a lifetime of anguish.
Surgically correcting the facial anatomy is the first step to restoring speech. However, even after the facial anatomy is corrected, many still have difficulties speaking. Post-operative speech therapy is needed to retrain the mouth and throat to correctly form sounds.
“Even though the surgery is complete and successful, and they look more normal, it’s the therapy that’s going to make them sound better,” said speech therapist Sally Peet. “Just because the anatomy is corrected doesn’t mean they are able to use it to speak properly. Therapy is a huge part of making the surgery a success.”
Sally Peet of the United Kingdom has been a licensed speech therapist since 1994. Since 2004, she and her family have served with Mercy Ships. Currently, she provides speech therapy for patients onboard the Africa Mercy.
Peet described her work: “I work with the maxillofacial patients, mainly the cleft lips and the cleft palates. However, any surgery that’s interrupted the facial muscles may have a need for therapy. For example, when a patient has a large facial tumor removed, their skin and lips become flaccid, affecting their speech and their ability to control saliva. I work with them, as well as the cleft lip patients, to make sure their lips are strong.”
Patients with speech difficulties are referred to Peet post-operatively by the Africa Mercy nursing staff. She works individually with each patient, evaluating their needs and providing exercises to strengthen weakened muscles. Also, she encourages the proper usage of restored facial anatomy.
“Many patients have found a way of ineffectively talking around huge malformations and have spoken incorrectly for years. The initial goal is to ensure the anatomy where the surgery has taken place will now be functional,” said Peet.
Peet works with patients throughout their time on the ward. When they leave the hospital, they come back to the Africa Mercy for outpatient appointments – sometimes for several months after their surgery.
“I can achieve more with the ones who live closer, because I can see them for a longer period of time,” said Peet.
Peet describes a memorable patient she worked with for over three months during the 2008 Field Service in Liberia: “There was a beautiful little girl with a cleft lip and palate. She spoke without using any constants sounds, and you could not understand her when she talked. She and her mom worked incredibly hard in therapy. By the time we finished, she was totally intelligible and making every sound correctly. Her mother said all her aunties in her village were dancing because now, not only does she look beautiful, she sounds beautiful.”
Providing speech therapy is just one example of Mercy Ships commitment to holistic care for patients through the partnership of various professional skills. Sally Peet is thrilled to be partnering with the Africa Mercy’s surgical and nursing staff to provide hope and healing to the world’s forgotten poor. “I love providing speech therapy. It’s great to be working in my profession onboard the Africa Mercy,” she concluded.

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