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Speech-language pathologists give voice and hope to patients at Howard Memorial Hospital

WILLITS, CA – Parents look forward to their child’s milestones. Photos and posts inundate social media with all their firsts; the first smile, the first word. But for then two-year old Cameron Thompson, his first word came much later than expected. “We didn’t think any of it, we thought he was just slower than other kids his age. So we waited,” shares Crystal Lynn, Cameron’s mother.

But the words never came. Instead of talking, Cameron was making noises and pointing at two years old. She remembers thinking something was wrong and her mother’s instinct told her to look for answers. She went on the internet to start. “I came across this list of words that he was supposed to be saying at his age. He was supposed to say 24 words, and he only had two.” 

Cameron was referred for speech therapy at Frank R. Howard Memorial Hospital (HMH). Every week since then, during hour-long appointments, speech therapist Jaynie Smith works with Cameron. 

“We use play as a vehicle for language development. In designing a child directed play therapy session with specific goals in mind, we weave in many opportunities to hear and say speech sounds, words and sentence structures. Instead of giving everything to him, I modeled for Cameron how to use his words to ask for highly desired toys or activities. In doing that, he has begun to understand the power of communication and that it is a two-way street. Language explodes from there,” explains Smith. 

Today, Cameron is “talking up a storm” and there’s no stopping him, like a typical four-year old. His vocabulary has grown and the pretend play scenarios are just endless. “I love listening to him and I’m just amazed at how far he’s come. Being able to communicate has also allowed his imagination to grow and he’s able to make friends now,” shares his proud dad, Chad Thompson. 

“Before therapy, he used to just avoid talking. We thought he was just reserved. Now, he would strike up a conversation with anybody, and it will last for hours if you let him. It’s just amazing how much progress he’s made. Now his intelligence really shines through. Aside from simple words, he says these big words, like ‘reflection’ and he knows how to use them in the right context too!” 

His parents say, not only did therapy help with his speech it also helped with his intellectual development. “Now he can form concepts. Even better, he can include us in his play. We’re part of his world now because we understand his train of thought. So we’re all better off as a family because he is so much better at communicating,” explains Chad. 

At his recent appointment, Cameron was chatting with everyone in the waiting room and was proud to report it was his birthday. And mom was just as proud. “Jaynie has taught us how to work with him and continue to encourage his development. So that when we leave, we’re able to supplement what he learns here. There’s less frustration on his part when we can’t understand what he’s saying,” Crystal Lynn explains. 

“I’m so glad we got him help. I’m not sure he would be this great at communicating now, if it wasn’t for the speech therapy team here. And we’re so grateful that we didn’t have to drive to the city to get this care. Considering we go to therapy every week, it’s very convenient that we only have to drive 15 minutes instead of two hours to the city,” she adds. 

Speech language therapy also addresses a variety of conditions, for both children and adults. Speech therapy is commonly used to address a range of challenges often faced by persons with autism. For instance, some individuals on the autism spectrum do not speak, while others love to talk but have difficulty using conversational speech and/or understanding the nuances of language and nonverbal cues when talking with others. 

Diane Knotts, SLPA, uses the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), to allow the patient to let her know what he wants. In one particular case, a patient with autism picks up two pictures; one showing a heart and a hand (representing “I want”) and another showing a lion (“a lion”) and then gives them to Knotts. In return, Knotts gives the patient a toy lion, stating “I want lion!” so that the language structure is then “layed down” onto the experience. 

Knotts explains the technique, “While he’s not saying actual words, he is able to let me know that he wants the toy lion. At the same time, I’m showing him that communication is two-way- he tells me what it is he wants and I give it to him. I teach the same technique to his mother, so that when they are at home, he can continue to communicate. The PECS program is designed so that therapy starts with the exchange of a single picture. A picture representing a word grows to formation of a simple sentence, and then more complex sentences.” 

She adds, “When he’s at home, he doesn’t get as frustrated as he used to because he can tell his parents what he wants. The goal is to give them quality of life. And communication is key in achieving that.” 

Both Knotts and Smith say seeing the improvement in their patients give them so much fulfillment. Knotts, who has been helping rehab patients for the past eight years, says it’s one of the reasons she decided to choose this field. “Imagine having all these thoughts and emotions and you just can’t express them. It’s like being locked inside yourself. Imagine how frustrating that would be for an adult, and more so for a child. Communication is such a part of who we are as human beings, to help with a piece of that, is beyond rewarding.” 

Smith, who has been a speech language pathologist for over 30 years adds, “I feel so blessed to have this job. It brings me joy when I see my patients progress with their ability to communicate. For a child, when their words really work for them to communicate their desires, thoughts and ideas, it is truly amazing and so rewarding. Working together with parents as partners is extremely effective in accelerating language learning. With older children, young adults and the elderly, it’s that same satisfaction in being able to provide that help and guidance toward more effective communication. 

“The power of words and the ability to communicate is such a big thing -- it is a critical aspect of our lives every day. We often take it for granted. But in my work, I’ve seen how it can change people’s lives. Opening those doors to new or different modes of communication gives our patients increased independence, a sense of control over their lives, and so much hope.” 

Aside from helping patients with speech problems, SLPs also help children and adults with neuromuscular disorders like spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), muscular dystrophy (MD) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Those who have lost cognitive ability and/or the ability to speak or swallow, due to illness or injury such as stroke, also benefit from speech and language therapy. 

“We’re proud to be able to offer this service to our community so that they don’t have to travel far for specialized services such as this. Stories such as Cameron’s are what motivates us, knowing that we’re making a difference in the lives of our patients and that’s really what we’re here for,” concludes Jason Wells, HMH president and CEO.

Outpatient Rehab is staffed with three nationally certified speech language pathologists. They are located at 3 Marcela Drive, Suite D in Willits. For more information about their services or to make an appointment, please call (707)-456-3141.