It’s my mission to make sure that every cleft patient who comes to me leaves with their speech as close to perfect as possible… no matter how many years it might take.
What many people don’t realize is that cleft patients need a lot of specialized care even after their surgery - whether it’s in the form of orthodontics or speech therapy. To rehabilitate cleft patients after their initial surgery, different medical practitioners work together to ensure that future treatment is optimized not only for appearance, but also for ease of eating, speaking, and breathing.
I came across the field of speech pathology by chance, and it would probably be more accurate to say that this profession chose me! I started my journey of becoming a speech language pathologist at the All India Institute of Speech and Hearing, Mysore. I did my Master of Science there, and am currently doing my Ph.D. on speech outcomes in cleft patients. I have been associated with Smile Train since 2013. I work with children from the time when they are as young as 8 months old, when speech hasn’t even developed yet. In the initial stages, my work mostly involves counselling. At a later stage, we follow Smile Train’s protocol to assess if speech training is required, and work with the children till they turn 5 to 6 years old, so that they are ready to start their schooling with their heads held high!
Though I meet nearly 800 patients every year, there are some cases that will always be close to my heart. One such example is a girl who I first met when she was two years old. Her cleft was so severe that she couldn’t even swallow, much less speak clearly. I worked with her for many years to perfect her speech, and gradually, as she became better, we lost touch. Last week, her mother sent me a message informing me that not only was the girl a confident speaker, but had actually won a solo singing competition at the age of 7! It is incidents like this which are not only immensely satisfying, but a humble reminder of how my work has changed someone’s life drastically.
There are many things that keep me working with Smile Train. Firstly, the team is great, and everyone is aligned to the vision of treating clefts for transforming children’s lives. Smile Train also never hesitates to support and acknowledge the work we do, which leads to the kind of amazing work satisfaction that I hadn’t experienced before. Additionally, the work that I do itself is immensely rewarding. For patients who attend large-scale cleft camps, post-operative rehabilitation is rare and expensive, so it is difficult to motivate patients to come. Here, Smile Train does as much as reimbursing patients for their travel expenses, so they do not hesitate to keep coming back to us, even over a period of many years.
On Women’s Day, my message to women is that, while family support is important, you must push yourself. As the mother of a four year old, I know as well as anyone that restrictions are just a hurdle to be overcome. Understand where your capabilities are, and once you are confident about what you want to do, I can guarantee that you have the potential to balance your career and family perfectly.
As shared by Aparna VS. Aparna is a Speech Language Pathologist at Smile Train’s partner, Bhagwan Mahaveer Jain Hospital in Bangalore.