Oklahoma City, Okla — Speech and language pathologists are working overtime on the front lines for recovering COVID-19 patients; especially those who spend extended amounts of time on ventilators. In many cases, the patients must re-learn how to swallow and use their voices.
“It’s probably one of the most vital and essential things that we do as a speech and language pathologist in a hospital,” said Jennifer Tetnowski, a Speech and Language Pathologist at O.U. Medicine’s College of Allied Health.
A patient’s inability to swallow correctly can result in what’s known as aspirations. Food or liquid goes into the lungs instead of the stomach. That can cause choking, pneumonia, and even death.
According to Kendra Oglesby, an S.L.P with Integris, “We work with people on articulation and communication and voice, but they don’t think about the functions that overlay with breathing and with speaking or producing voice that involves protecting your airway, that involve eating and drinking in a functional and safe manner.”
Before COVID-19, hundreds of thousands of Americans used ventilators every year. The virus has brought along a higher demand for the breathing equipment, which means, SLP's are working overtime to help those patients get back to normal.
“Now we are working with patients who are sometimes more debilitated, even, who have been on the ventilator for a prolonged period of time and so, who may have an even prolonged period of recovery,” Oglesby said, “There’s certain stress also involved just because of the nature of their diagnosis and that sometimes, of course, that’s such a high risk of transmitting that.”
Transmission is a concern for many SLP’s who need to use PPE that allows patients to be able to watch and repeat certain therapy exercises. That’s especially true for those who are hard of hearing.
The problem is, transparent PPE that’s N-95 grade, doesn’t exist.
“We’ve used a lot of our problem-solving skills to just try and work through that as well,” According to Bethany Overton, an SLP with Mercy Hospital.
Speech pathologists told Fox 25 they’re doing video conferencing when possible but it’s not always the safest or most effective option for patients who are learning to swallow.