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SLP and MS: A patient success story

By Matt Cavallo

In a previous article on speech-language pathology and MS, I discussed what speech language pathology is, what speech language disorders can affect MS, and how speech-language pathologists can help treat people with MS. To expand on how SLPs can help people living with MS, I wanted to share a personal story of how a SLP helped me recover from my cervical fusion.

I have always been a big, strong guy who was never been afraid of the unknown. That was until I learned that I needed to have an anterior cervical fusion to repair a fractured vertebrae in my neck. You learn really quickly what fear truly is when your only two options are to become a paraplegic or have a major neck surgery. The surgery was not elective, it was inevitable. And I was scared.

As I sat across from the neurosurgeon, I did not show fear. The way he talked about the surgery made it seem like a standard construction job: cut here, remove fragments, insert titanium plate, and secure with four screws. The neurosurgeon was so confident that not only would I be okay, but that I could possibly be better than I was before. At the very least, he thought that I would be pain free. He said that the once the surgery was over and the area healed, that I wouldn’t notice a thing.

Just because the neurosurgeon said I’d be okay, didn’t mean that I felt okay about it. While I maintained a positive outward attitude at home and at work, inside I was the most terrified I had ever been in my life.

Luckily for me, I worked for the neuroscience clinic at an outpatient rehabilitation facility. My clinic had an speech-language pathologist named Ron. Ron and I became friends at work, but he was also familiar with my MS. Ron had seen me as a patient of the neuroscience clinic prior to me becoming an employee there. The neuroscience clinic had a multidisciplinary approach to treating MS, which included evaluations by a neurologist, physical therapist, occupational therapist, and an SLP. Ron was my SLP and now coworker.

A couple days before surgery, I was working at the clinic preparing for my extended absence because of my impending surgery, when Ron knocked on my door.

“Hey Matt, you got a minute?” asked Ron.

“Sure,” I replied. “What’s up?” I’ll never forget what he said next.

“Matt, your neurosurgeon is going to tell you that when you’re all healed that you will go back to normal, but you won’t. You have an epiglottis, which is a little flap that goes back and forth when you swallow. For a while after the surgery, you are going to feel an abnormality every time the epiglottis moves.”

I went into surgery and my coworker, Ron, was sitting on my bed when I awoke. He wanted to work on my swallowing. I wasn’t in the mood just then, but that began a private journey between Ron and I. When I returned to work, he would put a can of Ensure on my desk each day to ensure I was getting nutrients with my cervical collar on. He coached me how to swallow wearing the hard, cervical collar. When I finally got it removed, he was there as well.

And you know what, I did feel my epiglottis every time I swallowed. It was weird, and sometimes, to this day I can still feel it. However, the expectations that Ron, my SLP, set helped me get over my surgery and on a path to living a normalized life. With MS, you often need an army of specialists to help you on your journey. Ron is definitely part of that army that has helped me battle this disease and given me the tools to adapt during the difficult times. If you are experiencing difficulties managing your MS, talk to your neurologist and ask for referrals to other specialists that can help you on your journey. You don’t have to be alone in your fight.