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"Communication is a fundamental right and something that every person carries with them their entire lives," Speech Pathologist Kiah Thorn said.
While many think of spoken words when they think of communicating with others, communication is so much more than that.
"No one expects an infant to start talking, right? But infants do communicate. They communicate using their voice by crying, but also through eyebrow raises, grimacing, pulling away or increases or decreases in their heart rate," she said. "Communication is a lifespan activity that transcends cultures, geography and age."
Kiah recognizes the significance of her part in helping kids communicate and, with a hopeful tone in her own voice, she shared, "I feel very privileged because I will always find meaning in our work. We'll continue to have an impact on them long after discharge. I know they'll forget me specifically but their continued progress will be a result of the seed we planted."
In addition to Kiah's being a fairly new member of the Cook Children's family (since January 2020), the field of speech therapy is actually a whole new career chapter for her. While it's a new chapter, it's still a chapter very much rooted in helping others like her previous role. One that took her to the small Caribbean island nation of Dominica.
Following high school here in Fort Worth, Kiah ventured west to Stanford University for college. After earning her undergraduate degree in International Relations and graduate degree in Latin American Studies, this Fulbright Scholar found herself ready to go out into the world and make a difference with the Peace Corps.
"At the time, there was a literacy interventionist position available in Dominica and it was exactly what I was looking for," Kiah recalled. "Not only was it a perfect fit for the literacy work I wanted to do but I had a personal preference to work with a population that was of African descent. This culturally unique area appealed to my curious-minded nature and offered a fascinating experience for me."
Part of that experience was an exposure to the French-based Creole of the island. "I admit I'm a language nerd," she said with an eager smile. "While I'm bilingual with English and Spanish, having the opportunity to immerse myself in a new language altogether was priceless, plus I loved getting first hand glimpses of the similarities and differences between African American cultures here in the United States and Afro-Caribbean culture."
While specifically tapped to work with pre-literacy and literacy skills, Kiah found her de facto experience included a much broader range of student ability levels and individual needs. Special education is still an emerging field in Dominica, as it is in much of the world. Separate special education classrooms and other auxiliary services (speech therapy, occupational therapy, etc) are often not readily available for the average student. She relished the opportunity to craft unique lesson plans and meet each student where they were.
"I really loved doing individualized programs rather than having to follow a prescribed curriculum and cater to the average student," Kiah said, "This is what spurred me to explore speech language pathology (SLP) after I left Dominica following Hurricane Katrina."
Armed with a new desire to pursue SLP, Kiah completed graduate school at University of Texas at Dallas and, ultimately, ended up back home and working at Cook Children's. "The family-centered approach that is at the core of Cook Children's is ideal for what I believe these kids need in developing their communication skills," Kiah said.
"Communication is by nature an interaction between partners. A child's primary communication partners are generally their parents, their peers, or other family members, like siblings. If you don't address the ability of BOTH sides of the communication interaction, not only the child, but ALSO the parents/siblings etc., then we can't really make progress," Kiah explained. "I can work with the child all day, but he doesn't exist in a vacuum. He needs the people he's trying to communicate with to be involved."
Such partnership and investment by the therapist, child and family is mirrored in what we all do for our patients. Regardless of your role, Kiah shines a light on the impact we can each have and that's helping families work through whatever brings them to our clinic, hospital or offices.
"Counseling is a huge part of what we do," she shared. "Something has happened to this family and their child that is generally unanticipated and in many cases, unpreferred, that's brought them to us. It is natural for family members to feel any combination of powerful emotions. Helping families to feel and work through those emotions and not allow them to stop or negatively impact their relationship with their child and his progress is a significant part of what we all do, whether at the front desk or the patient room and everywhere in-between."
And helping the child is truly why we are all here. Specifically, Kiah takes pride in facilitating what she calls 'aha' moments. Those bright instances when a patient goes from being predominantly nonverbal or only using a few words or signs to independently communicating something unexpected and defying expectations. Frequently, the introduction of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices triggers this moment for her more complex patients.
She shared, "Many times I see communication challenges like two parties being separated by a door. Both parent and child have been waiting on their respective sides of the door. Knocking, banging on it, trying the best way they know how to get through. For some, the introduction of AAC is like giving them the long-awaiting key. Bearing witness to the joy of what passes through that door...audible words for the first time of the unconditional love, the intellectual curiosity, the feisty humorous personality, that was always there, is my absolute favorite aspect of my job."
Thankfully, with professionals, like Kiah, who is committed to partnering with parents in a child's care, we can help each child that sits in front of us in the best way possible for them. When this happens, we will elevate the experience of the entire family and we can proudly say that it's a credit to the fact that together #WeAreCookChildrens.