In 1994, Judy Vander Woude was hired at Calvin to facilitate the fledgling speech pathology and audiology program. In 1992, after being rescued from elimination, the program had just a handful of majors.

Just over 20 years later, the burgeoning program now includes a master’s degree and its own clinic. Calvin College Rehabilitation Services opened this fall to meet three crucial needs for both the program and the regional clients it serves.

The flourishing speech pathology and audiology (SPAUD) program has seen its numbers grow to more than 100 majors, 34 of them in the master’s program. In the final year of the program, each student rotates through three internship placements. “Three placements for 34 students is 102 placements a year,” said VanderWoude, chair of Calvin’s SPAUD department. “And you want them to be good placements.”

Finding enough placements, particularly in medical facilities, has become more challenging.

In addition, a recent survey among area rehabilitation providers found that every month nearly 50 people leave these facilities who are still in need of assistance after their insurance benefits have been exhausted.

And finally, in the first year of Calvin’s master’s program in speech-language pathology, students work with clients in an on-campus clinic. During these interactions, clinical instructors noticed that many clients were also in need of continued occupational and physical therapy.

Needs inspire new clinic

The convergence of these needs inspired the idea for a new clinic that would provide speech-language, occupational and physical therapy under one roof in a cost-effective way.

That roof—and some exterior walls—existed practically adjacent to Calvin’s campus. The rest of the skeleton building had never been completed much less occupied. It took a strategic connection with a donor to envision the building at the northwest corner of the East Beltline and Lake Drive (1310 East Beltline) as the home for the new clinic.

“The process needed to start with an architect, and with one phone call we had an architect on board who was willing to do some up-front work within our budget of zero,”said the donor, who has chosen to remain anonymous. “We had fun taking their [Vander Woude and Jill Bates, SPAUD clinic director] dream and condensing it into room, relationships and square-feet parameters.”

While Calvin graduate students could address the speech-language needs, the aspiration of providing a multiservice location required additional partners.

“Western Michigan University’s occupational therapy program approached us last year about their students co-treating with our students, which they do now in the fall semester,” said VanderWoude. “So this time we approach them and asked if they would be willing to collaborate with us. Then we were introduced to the chair of the physical therapy program at Grand Valley State University, and that has turned into a great collaboration. So there’s our PT and there’s our OT!

“Sometimes God puts someone right in front of us, and I stop and think, ‘OK, we need to pay attention to this,’” she said.

Speech Skyping aids Afghan children

In Afghanistan, with a population of more than 32 million, there is one speech pathologist, according to Wasima Shinwari, a pre-med student from Kabul, studying in New York through the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women. For almost everyone, speech therapy is an entirely unknown treatment in her country.

Shinwari first encountered speech pathologists in the States while accompanying her brother, who was being evaluated for related disabilities.

“There is a cultural stigma attached to children with speech impediments which isolates them from the mainstream making their situation worse,” wrote Shinwari.

After seeing what was possible, Shinwari launched the Speech Pathology Project, which provides speech pathology training to medical students and doctors in Afghanistan via Skype.

With a small amount of funding behind her project, Shinwari reached out to a person she knew, eventually connecting to the speech pathology program at Calvin this past spring.

“We weren’t sure what we were getting into,” said Barbara Novak, a longtime speech pathologist and supervisor for Calvin’s on-campus clinic. “We found nine graduate students who were interested and decided to give it a try.”

It was late on a Friday night that grad students Leah Busse, Rebecca Vander Byl Ellens and Courtney Corson were gathered around a computer screen teaching a room full of Afghan med students and doctors about dysphasia, or swallowing disorders, via Skype, one of four such sessions that occurred this fall.

“We are here to learn from you,” said Shinwari, as the instruction was starting. “We are so thankful that you are offering to help our children in Afghanistan.”

Corson volunteered for the project because “I loved the idea of collaboration and the potential to share my knowledge with others who are genuinely interested,” she said.

Some cultural differences made the presentations difficult though, explained Novak. “For example, it’s disrespectful for an Afghan child to look an adult in the face, which is necessary for teaching good speech and communication skills,” she said.

“It was very eye-opening for our students, especially working with a culture so different from ours,” added Bethany Kemler, another speech pathologist professional, Calvin supervisor and volunteer for this project. “For the Afghans, this is a brand new field,” she said. “We’re really just scratching the surface but hoping we can make a difference.”

And already they are. Last spring, 15 Afghan children with speech difficulties, who were helped by the medical staff trained by the Calvin speech pathologists, began attending school for the first time.

Busse is glad to see their efforts succeeding: “I believe the impact of this project will positively contribute to the quality of life for Afghanistan citizens. Another goal of the project is for the presented information to be integrated into practical medicine in Afghanistan. It is our hope that future generations will be educated on the information presented during the project and integrated into future practices.”

Collaborative Care

Steve Vanderkamp, the newly hired director of the clinic, finds this unique approach to collaborative care compelling.

“We are really trying to push an integrated approach,” he said. “We will all be working very closely together to make sure all of the clients’ needs are being addressed. Because of our proximity, it will make for easier communication.”

The new clinic, which opened Sept. 8, occupies 4,500 square feet of the second floor of the two-story building. The space includes a waiting area, a group therapy room, seven multifunctional treatment rooms, two soundproof audiology booths and a physical therapy gym, complete with a climbing wall, hand bike, parallel bars, exercise mat table and a therapeutic swing.

“We have top-notch health professionals and faculty from three universities on board to provide specialized services for children and adults such as therapies for persons with Parkinson’s, MS, head and neck cancer, sensory integration issues, autism, traumatic brain injuries, and pediatric hearing services,” said Vanderkamp.

In addition to managing the clinic, Vanderkamp, who has nearly 25 years of medical experience in west Michigan, will serve as a part-time physical therapist. He will be joined by faculty in physical therapy, occupation therapy, social work, speech pathology and audiology. Calvin College, Western Michigan University (WMU) and Grand Valley State University (GVSU) will provide graduate interns for the allied health services.

“We’re very excited about the opening of the new clinic,” said Nancy Hock, coordinator of WMU’s occupational therapy program in Grand Rapids. “This kind of collaboration with other institutions and with the community is a great opportunity for WMU and a wonderful learning experience for our students.”

Added Barb Baker, associate director of physical therapy at GVSU, “There is great excitement in the Grand Valley physical therapy department over this venture. Uniquely, this clinic will allow our physical therapy students the opportunity to experience treatment of neurological clients from an intercollegiate and interdisciplinary perspective. This is meeting an enormous need in educating students, because neurological placements for students are limited.”

And having her students work alongside occupational and physical therapists will help them learn how to closely collaborate with a variety of professionals to best serve clients, said Vander Woude: “It’s one thing to talk about it in class, but it’s another thing to actually do it and figure out how to get on the same page for a particular client to help fulfill his or her needs. Then when they graduate, they can do that or at least advocate for it.”

In addition to the various institutions collaborating on the clinic, other academic departments at Calvin have been involved. The social work department will be offering services, and Vander Woude hopes to find other places to intersect with departments, such as nursing and kinesiology.

“We’ll see where God leads,” she said. “We are thrilled with where He’s brought us so far.”

Research focus: Exercise for swallowing disorders

Like breathing, swallowing is an action that most of us take for granted—until we are unable to perform the feat.

“When a person’s swallowing is impaired, it really affects his or her quality of life,” said Beth Oommen, Calvin speech pathology professor. “If you can’t drink water or can’t eat the foods you love, it has a big impact. Eating is a really big thing.”

Swallowing is a complex physiological event that requires the coordination of approximately 50 muscles and different levels of the nervous system. And the tongue, made up of eight of those muscles, plays a very important role. “It helps in different stages of swallowing,” said Oommen.  

That’s why Oommen has dedicated her recent research to developing practical and cost-effective treatment options for swallowing disorders—basically, exercise therapy for the tongue.

“I wanted to develop a home-based treatment program that is focused on strengthening the tongue,” she said.

This past summer, Oommen and three Calvin speech pathology graduate students collected data from healthy older adults who performed the exercises—like pressing the tongue to the roof of the mouth and holding for five seconds—over a period of weeks to determine the effects.

The results will serve as the foundation for examining similar measures in patients with swallowing impairments, specifically in patients who have suffered strokes.

For Calvin grad student Chelsea Bischer, the experience was invaluable. “I wanted to be part of the research because I had volunteered at an acute rehab hospital where I saw a lot of swallowing therapy, and it was fascinating to me,” she said. “I liked the idea of being a part of something that could someday help people who had lost their ability to swallow.”

The research also was revealing to grad student Megan Rotunno: “I’ve learned how intricate, structured and time-consuming a research project can be. … “Now I have a greater respect for research as well as read research articles with a more critical eye.”

While the research team is still analyzing the data, Oommen is hopeful that a home-based treatment plan can be developed based on the outcomes from the project.

“In addition to making a treatment option more accessible and cost-effective in the U.S., I’m also interested in whether such a program might be viable in developing countries, including my native country, India, where the specialty area of swallowing disorders is still in the early stages of development,” she said.

Lynn Rosendale is managing editor of Spark. Lori Dykstra ’15 contributed to this story.