I have always been interested in languages, accents, culture, people, and serving others. Some of my most memorable and formative experiences as a teenager were Spanish class with my feisty Cuban profesora, and missions trips with my church to the Dominican Republic. I loved learning the language, communication style, culture, as well as being able to help and serve others. I loved “dia de cultura” on Fridays where we would go to the cafeteria to learn how to dance merengue and move our hips. I loved being able to help less fortunate children understand they are loved, teach them songs, crafts and games, as well as translate for medical clinics (the third year I returned). That very Cuban Spanish teacher had a daughter who was a speech language pathologist; I ended up meeting her, babysitting her bilingual children for many years, and shadowing her at work. I loved what I saw at her job- helping children from all backgrounds and with various difficulties learn to communicate and express themselves.
Heading into college, choosing a degree was clear – I’d pick 2! I double majored in speech language pathology and Spanish at James Madison University. I was able to study abroad for a semester in Spain, as well as volunteer with the Latino population in the area of Harrisonburg Virginia. I would go to elementary schools and clinics to observe speech pathologists in action which was intriguing, and confirmed my decision for my major…. but there were other classes in undergrad that drew my attention. We took anatomy and neuroanatomy, and participated in a cadaver labs where we would manipulate the actual nerves, muscles and tendons that allow people to talk, eat, drink, laugh. I was fascinated. In order to practice as a speech language pathologist, you have to have a masters degree AND successfully complete a 9 month fellowship before becoming fully licensed and independent practitioner. My journey was just beginning.
(7 roommates in an 8 bedroom old home in Harrisonburg VA)
When it came to applying to graduate school I was of course looking EXCLUSIVELY at bilingual programs in places like Texas, Southern California, and Chicago. I was determined to combine speech pathology and Spanish at the graduate level. As a “safety school” I applied to the University in my hometown of Baltimore….that did NOT have a bilingual program. The rejection letters rolled in, and ultimately I was accepted ONLY to Towson University in Baltimore (a boring city with way-too-long winters). Now I know that not everyone believes in a higher power, or God but I do. I may not have realized this initially, but ultimately moving home for grad school was meant to be. I was able to save money, reconnect with childhood friends and family, and have one of the most pivotal experiences related to my career. I initially continued on in graduate school thinking I would work with bilingual children who had language disorders, and focused my attention nearly exclusively to that end. In our second year however, we were REQUIRED to do a medically based externship with ADULTS. Other than finding anatomy class interesting, I had no idea about the medical field whatsoever. Through yet another providential encounter I was afforded the opportunity to shadow a speech pathologist who worked at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore city. This hospital is important because it has been ranked the #1 hospital in the United States for many years. After shadowing for a day, to my surprise, I was asked to apply for their speech pathology graduate externship program. Long story short I applied, made it through the grueling interview, was chosen, and completed my last semester as a graduate clinician at Johns Hopkins. I was specifically covering the neurology and neurosurgery floors. The pace of that place, the types of patients, the amazing life- saving brain surgeries being done for people with strokes, brain tumors, cancer, was incredible to me. I loved reading patient charts and learning about their diagnoses, what procedures had been done, and then getting to go into their room and help them right there in their hospital bed. I wrapped up that externship with an excitement for the hospital setting, and thankful to have been home, in Baltimore.
Despite my new found enthusiasm for medical speech pathology, I was exhausted from graduate school. My intrigue for the Spanish language and Latino culture had taken a back seat but was still very present. That being said, I deviated from the typical tack of my peers, and took 5 months off to travel around South and Central America. I enrolled in a Spanish for professionals course so that I could HOPEFULLY ultimately combine my new found love for medical speech pathology with my historical love for Spanish. During that period I hiked to Machu Picchu, swam with dolphins in the Amazon river, (unsuccessfully) fished for pirañas, explored the beaches of Cartagena, slept in hammocks, made friends from around the globe. After about a month of that, I settled in with my surrogate family in San Jose Costa Rica for 4 months. While living in CR I faithfully attended Spanish for professionals classes but also learned to dance salsa in my family’s kitchen, ate wayyyy too much costa rican food, AND discovered that Costa Rica is the only country in central america that has a collegiate speech pathology program. In addition to my “Spanish for professionals” course, I was able to attend university level speech path classes and interact with professional peers on an international level. The path we take in life may deviate from that of our peers, but how boring and unfulfilling would life be if we looked at each other and chose the same one.
After wrapping up 5 months abroad it was time to come home (I was a bridesmaid in my friend’s wedding- I had no choice). It was time to start working and I was determined to find a job where I could combine speaking Spanish + medical speech pathology. AND if there was sun and beach I wouldn’t complain. That being said, I booked a flight from San Jose Costa Rica to San Diego California. One of my best friends moved to SD after college; I had visited her once during grad school and knew that place spoke to me. I hopped off the plane from Costa Rica and the next day borrowed my friend’s laptop, printer and interview clothes. With my resume printed and a friend of a friend’s knee length skirt, I drove around to hospitals armed with my resume, and quite literally walked through the front door asking for jobs. In hindsight this seems quite unorthodox and even a little brash, but hey, sometimes you quite literally just have to go for it. The first hospital I went to was Scripps Mercy in downtown San Diego; after explaining my situation to the nice lady at the front desk, she said, “I’m claiming this job for you! And HR is down the hall to the left!” I went to HR… for about 30 seconds. I then proceeded to wander around that hospital until I found the door marked ‘speech pathology’. With sweaty palms I opened the door and handed my resume to what would be my co-workers for the first 5 years of my career. The day after I turned up at their desks, one of their full time employees announced she was quitting. Their first phone call was to me, and I happily accepted the position. Part of my interview was completed in Spanish, and my graduate experience at Johns Hopkins was pivotal in their decision to hire me. Coincidences? I think not.
I cut my teeth as a clinical fellow (for 9 months) and then as a fully licensed speech language pathologist at the level 1 trauma center of Scripps Mercy Hospital, just across the border from Mexico. I spent the majority of my days treating Spanish speaking patients, with neurological (as well as many other) disorders. SLPs diagnose and treat a variety of things in the hospital setting- yes we look at a patient’s ability to talk and understand language, we also assess ability to eat and drink, general cognitive function, use of special devices for patients with tracheostomy tubes, and much more. We use radiographic and endoscopic camera tests to evaluate swallow function and determine whether someone will need a feeding tube or if they can eat. The job was perfect for me. If we are willing to take leaps of faith we will often find life is better than we could have imaged on the other side. What seems like disappointments, not what we expected, a delay or deviance is frequently just what we need to help us become our most fulfilled self.
After 5 years in San Diego I felt a bit stagnant in my career so that, along with a few other life changes lead me to take another leap. I quit my job without another one lined up, went to Maui for a week and then sold everything except what would fit in my car (literally had a massive yard sale). I packed up my dog, and my belongings and headed to Northern California. My intention was to working at a coffee shop or do floral arranging (a new hobby I picked up in SoCal). I wanted a break from speech pathology. So I made my up north with a friend and her dog too, camping at Yosemite and stopping at a few other landmarks. My friend carried on across the country and I parked at the motel 8 in Roseville CA somewhere between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. I lived there for a week because they allowed dogs and had free breakfast. I spent hours on Craigslist searching for a place to live and a job- a non-speech pathology- job specifically. I went to random cutsie coffee shops asking for work but no one was hiring. I applied to be a short order cook at a camp but they didn’t want me. The floral arrangers were all set and didn’t need help. After a week of prayers and dead ends I finally landed a place to live and job….of all things, doing speech pathology. I literally saw the job, submitted my resume, and interviewed all in the same day. I started work the following day- there are perks to small town living! The beauty of this season in my life is that I was able to live very simply and only worked about 15 hours a week. I would not have been able to survive on 15 hours a week with a barista salary. The facility where I worked was very small and relaxed, I even brought my pup with me on many occasions- the patients loved her. The small nursing home was a welcomed downshift in terms of pace and acuity level. In my free time I was able to visit wine country, hang out with friends in oregon, San Fran, dip my toes in lake Tahoe and camp at mount Lassen. Despite my plans for coffee shop work, my job as a speech pathologist is really what allowed to me to live and enjoy that place. As I was leaving San Diego I could not have fathomed the story ahead of me, but in the end it was worth the leap.
My position ended there after about 4 months (their full time speech therapist came back from maternity leave), and I was on the road again! I headed to the East coast in the fall, home to ‘boring’ baltimore just in time for the too-long winter. Again with the pup in tow, and another willing friend, we made our way across the country.
My plan really was to do a couple month drive by in Baltimore, i.e., work there BRIEFLY before moving somewhere warmer and with a beach…. and less traffic. It’s nice to have plans, but if I’ve learned anything it’s that plans are really just nice ideas that seem feasible and good. They are not something to hold onto with a death grip, forcing them into action. Our singular human brain is falible and can only see and understand so much. There are other things at play in the world- other people, other energies, things bigger than me. That being said I ended up in Baltimore for 5 years- I still think the winters are too long but the city is far from boring or dull. I again was able to reconnect with family old friends, and this time create many NEW lifelong friendships and experience the culture of Baltimore as an adult. Professionally I ended up initially piecing together work at several pretty rough nursing homes, where I attempted to do my best work but found that environment stifling and unfulfilling. I ultimately applied to the University of Maryland Medical Center. This is the rival hospital of Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and is home to the Shock Trauma Center, which boasts a 97% survival rate if admitted following a major traumatic accident. I sort of knew this but not fully when I applied….I just needed better work. My first several weeks there, I was entirely overwhelmed and intimidated by the size and scope of the place. I did not know what I was getting into, to put it mildly. Not only is there a world renown trauma center at UMMC, but it is also a tertiary care center that treats all medically complex patients from around the region. There are 800 hospital beds at the Univ of MD, and over half are for critically ill patients. This position made my brain explode. This was far beyond helping patients with strokes and pneumonia- I would frequently spend an hour combing through the patient’s chart before seeing them, googling acronyms and diagnoses I had never heard of. Speech pathologists were involved in not only helping patients after gunshot or stab wounds to the head, face or neck, but also assessing swallow function after double lung or heart transplants, patients with major reconstructive facial surgery to remove cancerous bones, portions or the whole tongue, teeth and head/neck/face tissue. I became very proficient at our diagnostic endoscopic swallowing assessments, increased my comfort level with tracheostomized individuals and generally critically ill patient population. During my time at UMMC I was able to share my skills by mentoring the speech fellow who had just finished her graduate training. Years at a place like University of Maryland will ware on you though. It’s a setting of high burn out, and the city despite it’s charms, is high in violent crime. I am thankful for my unplanned 5 year detour to baltimore, my clinical skills sky rocketed, and set me up to feel comfortable working in just about any other hospital in the country, should I choose to.
My next leap was to take a 3 month travel contract position in Hawaii. I was originally considering Arizona or Texas to tap back into my Spanish skills, but decided to also look a little further west. I Interviewed for 2 positions on Maui and one on Oahu – the Oahu one stuck. For me one of the greatest joys in life is adventure. I’ve always loved the culture and energy of Hawaii, not to mention the mountains, beaches and weather. My job at Kuakini hospital has been great. Since finishing my 3 month contract there, they offered me a permanent, part-time position which I readily accepted. Kuakini is a small community hospital founded by Japanese immigrants. It maintains a strong Japanese influence which has been another culturally eye opening experience. There is a strong sense of gratitude woven into the narrative of the Japanese patients I treat, as well as respect and acceptance of their station in life. So many of them gracefully age into their 90s with ease, and reflect on their years with appreciation and laughter. I am regularly inspired by them and hope to age with a fraction of that grace.
Speech language pathology is a career that has allowed me to move fluidly between states, facilities and people groups. I am grateful for the skills I have gained at each place I’ve worked, as well as for the human connections I’ve made, the places I’ve seen and the adventures I’ve had. I have many years ahead of me, and intend to hold my plans with an open palm. It’s the leaps, twists, turns and unexpected things that make life life and make us us.