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A Speech Therapist's Journey from Disability to Healing

From Personal Struggle to Professional Passion: A Story of Resilience

Catherine Walters | March 18, 2024

A woman walking on water

Healing Journey of a Speech Therapist

Thank you so much for stopping by my humble corner of speech therapy cyberspace! I’d like to share with you a little more about who I am as a person, as my life experiences have significantly shaped my clinical presence. Before becoming a speech therapist, I grew up in a very artistically inclined household. All of my family members are musicians and artists. I began painting in my mom‘s art studio as a young child. As an adult, I continue to sell commissioned work and prints while also working as a speech-language pathologist. Art has always been a staple of my life and continues to nourish my spirit. It is ultimately where my healing journey as a speech therapist began. I’ve incorporated music and visual expression into many of my sessions, but I’ll discuss that further in another post.

Facing Personal Disability: A Turning Point

My personal experience with disability led me to this beautiful profession where I am able to help others overcome their own communication obstacles. 

It all started during my last year of college at UC Irvine in 2006 when I was studying and working abroad in Argentina. I was 21 when all of a sudden I began to experience mysterious pain in my hands. The pain shot up into my arms anytime I started using my fingers. I ended up having to end my internship at the Organization of American States and go back home to seek medical care. I ended up seeing neurologists, rheumatologists, physical therapists. Nobody knew what was going on. I had bloodwork, MRIs, x-rays done. My doctors couldn’t figure out what was going on with my hands. Medical and rehabilitative treatments weren’t working and I just continued to experience this disabling pain anytime I used my fingers to write, type, paint, or draw. 

Pursuing Speech Therapy: Overcoming Obstacles

I ended up graduating and not knowing how I would make a living. It was a very difficult time in my life, one which continues to give me so much empathy for my own clients who are suffering from disability. A couple of years later, the pain continued, and was only getting worse. During a trip to South Korea where I was visiting my mom, I met an orthopedic surgeon and pain specialist who thought I should undergo carpal tunnel release surgeries on both wrists. They were sure that I had carpal tunnel syndrome. I wanted a quick solution so badly that I decided to go through with the surgeries, even though other doctors had been hesitant about giving me this diagnosis. For a month, I couldn’t use my hands at all, not even to eat. As my hands began to heal from the surgeries, I was devastated to discover that the underlying pain was still there. Fast-forward to an additional unsuccessful surgery, years of physical and occupational therapy, acupuncture, a variety of chiropractic interventions, herbalists, you name it – I’ve done it! 

To this day, I still don’t have a diagnosis and the pain has traveled to other joints in my body. I know this sounds like a heavy story, and it is. But the beautiful thing about what I am telling you is that my own disability inspired me to help others. Through the support of Department of Rehabilitation (a governmental organization that provides vocational support for people with disabilities), I was able to go back to school and get my masters in speech-language pathology. It took me double the time it takes most people to graduate, but I was able to learn how to overcome the barriers that people with disabilities face, including discrimination, negative attitudes, accessibility issues, and financial challenges. As I studied about disability in the context of speech-language pathology, I was also navigating it within my personal life. 

Empathy in Practice: Supporting Others

I have learned through all of my experiences that dealing with disability (the social, economic, and physical barriers) can sometimes be more difficult than dealing with the medical condition itself. I have become a stronger clinician because I understand firsthand what it's like to face these challenges and can empathize with my clients on a deeper level. My chronic pain essentially has empowered me to provide more effective support and guidance.

During my speech therapy sessions, I focus on self-advocacy. I grasp the significance of navigating life with a disability, and in my interactions with clients, I prioritize establishing a nurturing environment where they can flourish. My approach centers on identifying your strengths and building upon them as we progress together!

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