Shikha Patel – Highly specialist speech and language therapist and clinical lead in voice and complex dysphagia

Shikha Patel – Highly specialist speech and language therapist and clinical lead in voice and complex dysphagia

When I graduated from my degree in biomedical science I knew I didn’t want to work in a lab. I felt I was better suited to a patient-facing role and knew that I could do this within the NHS, but not specifically what the role would be. I started working in head and neck surgical theatres and saw many adults and children with head and neck cancer, dysphonia (also known as hoarseness), glue ear, and cleft palate. Hearing these patients’ stories and health journeys and the role that speech and language therapists (SLT) played in supporting them piqued my interest. So, I researched how to become an SLT and here I am, working with people who have dysphonia, dysphagia, and communication needs. At the time of writing, I’m also about to start working within the field of head and neck. It feels like my journey into the profession has led me to where I’m meant to be.

What I find most rewarding about my role is when I’m able to help someone to get their sense of identity back. Many patients come to me feeling like they’ve lost themselves as their voice is their identity. Sometimes they don’t know how speech and language therapy will help them. The moment a patient realises they have someone in front of them who understands both their difficulty and their feelings is really rewarding, but when you come to the end of therapy, and you’ve been able to support them to get their voice and identity back – that’s priceless.

As well as helping people with their communication, I also help with eating, drinking, and swallowing difficulties. Eating and drinking is a vital, social part of life; when someone’s ability to eat and drink is disrupted this can have a major impact on the person’s mood, quality of life, social participation, health, and relationships. SLTs help people with dysphagia, as well as their carers, family, and the wider multidisciplinary team through assessment and therapy to implement eating and drinking plans that aim to reduce the risk of dysphagia. In some cases, dysphagia may be temporary such as during a period of acute illness, but in other instances it can be progressive with SLTs supporting the person until the end of their life.

As an SLT, no two days are the same. With such a varied role and clientele, you’re always learning. When you get patients that don’t quite fit the mould you think: what am I missing? Is something else going on here? And you begin to research and hypothesise. I feel that as SLTs we’re always striving to learn, be better, and help people to get better, but we can’t always do that and that’s OK. Being part of the person’s therapeutic journey, supporting their quality of life, giving them back their identity as best we can, and getting them to where they need to be is the true goal.