An often overlooked area of rehabilitation medicine, speech therapy is the treatment of speech and communication disorders.
The first time Ms Gwyneth Lee saw a speech therapist at work was when her grandfather developed slurred speech and swallowing disorders due to Parkinson’s Disease.
She later developed an interest in linguistics, phonetics and adolescent language development while pursuing her degree and decided to become a speech therapist.
“I enjoy interacting with my patients and empowering them in achieving fluency and dealing with fluctuations of their speech in different speaking situations,” says the 32-year-old, who has a master’s degree in speech pathology from La Trobe University.
As a speech therapist, she is trained in interventions designed to improve communication disorders such as swallowing, voice, acquired speech and language disorders and stuttering.
“Some disorders are due to medical conditions, while others are congenital,” she says.
“Swallowing disorders could result from stroke, dementia, nasopharyngeal cancer, while stuttering may be found in young children.”
She works at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH), specialising in treating such disorders.
For patients who have swallowing disorders, she assesses whether it is safe for them to eat orally and will advise them on the appropriate foods and modes of intake.
“Different disorders require different treatments,” she says. “Sometimes a hybrid or a fusion of treatment approaches are used.”
Ms Lee who has worked in the field for seven years enjoys the coaching aspect of being a speech therapist.
“There is an art to conducting the treatment successfully as each treatment is individually tailored to the patient,” she says.
The rehabilitation process requires constant problem-solving. Patients learn differently and the challenge lies in addressing their needs during the treatment.
“During a session, if I feel that what was planned is not working with the patient, I will adjust the treatment steps,” she explains.
Another aspect to the treatment process is counselling. Other than having an analytical mind, speech therapists need people skills and empathy.
“We often have to moderate patients’ expectations and guide them in setting realistic goals,” she adds.
“It is frustrating treating less motivated patients or those with unrealistic expectations. But it gets worse when family members are unreasonable and sometimes verbally abusive.”
Inspired to help
Being in paramedical field, she works closely with other specialists in the hospital so that a multi-disciplinary approach is adopted to offer better care for the patient.
Some of these specialists include the otholaryngologists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and psychologists.
When asked whether she would want to practise privately, she says: “I love working in the hospital environment.
“Other than being able to help a wider spectrum of people who need speech therapy, I keep abreast with new practices in my field through the training programmes SGH endorses.”
With 16 speech therapists in her team, there is “constant exchange of information whenever new challenges with patients arise”.
Speech therapy aims to help individuals regain their effective communication skills. However, recovery depends on the individual and some do not regain their prior level of speech function.
“Seeing patients empowered and happy with the improvements is rewarding,” she says.
“But seeing patients with the determination to improve themselves stirs me more.”
Once, she met a young man who underwent radiotherapy for nasopharyngeal cancer. He was determined to regain his voice so he could read to his young children. This is one of the many stories she has come across that fuel her passion for this occupation.
Her father once advised her: “Work to enjoy life for what it has to offer, not live just to work.”
“I am fortunate to be one of those who love their work,” she says with a smile.