When a speech and language therapist helped a West Ham fan find their voice again.

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Speech and language therapy changes lives every single day. You’ll have plenty of stories that come to mind when you reflect on the impact you’ve had on someone’s life.

That’s why we took some time out to dive into a particular story about a West Ham fan with Dominique St Clair Miller, SLT Director [Healthcare] at Cygnet Group.

And it’s a story that ends up on the terraces at West Ham United.

Over to you Chris and Dominique.

Chris: When we spoke recently there was a particular story that stuck with me. It involved singing on the terraces at West Ham United. So I just had to get some time with you to find out more!

Dominique: Yes, there are so many moments I could share but this one is a great example of the impact we have at a very human level.

The person in question was an individual who had been referred to our team for support following a diagnosis of a really rare, progressive neurological condition. And at the time our team started working with them, they were physically independent and able to care for themselves.

I think by this point they had retired from work, but still had a very active lifestyle - they had always been a very sporty individual, who was really into staying healthy, and had played semi-professional sport as well. They were always very meticulously dressed, went on amazing holidays with their partner and went to art galleries and the theatre regularly.

As many people with progressive neurological conditions experience, their condition gradually alters their experience of daily life. For example, it may take them longer to get to the theatre, or they might feel less confident about their ability to do things like that due to confusion caused by their condition.

Chris: They certainly kept themselves busy. And they were a West Ham United fan too?

Dominique: Yes, they were a deeply passionate football fan and a season ticket holder at West Ham United. They would go to every single home match with a group of friends and go to several of the away matches.

One of the things that every West Ham fan you will ever speak says is how much they love the moment at half time when they release the bubbles over the pitch and sing “I’m forever blowing bubbles.” I can only imagine that it's a really moving experience if you are a really avid supporter. And this was something that they certainly enjoyed doing.

When they would describe it to me, it was spine-tingling, but they were finding it increasingly difficult to articulate their speech and take part in this.

So actually one of their goals within speech and language therapy was to actually work on their singing.  Part one of their therapy goals was literally to work on singing that song.

So we designed the speech and language therapy input for a period of time to focus on that specific goal. It didn't matter that when we tried to have a conversation on the phone to book an appointment that it was really difficult for them to communicate - that didn't even register as an issue for this individual. For them, it was whether they could participate in this community, in the way that they wanted. So that's a great example of where we took a very person-led approach.

It was really so special to do that. And it was actually really effective because they were really motivated to do it - something they were really passionate about. They were prepared to put a lot of work into it. I had a lot of fun doing it in the process: singing a football anthem essentially with somebody in their home, knowing that the following Saturday they would be putting that into practice at the top of their lungs with a group of close friends.

It was such a lovely thing to be part of.

Chris: It sounds really special! What happened when they was able to sing at the match?

Dominique: They were understandably really moved about it and became quite tearful. That they were able to participate in this was was very moving for them, and there were times where they could hear themselves articulating the words and hold the tune.

They would become quite choked by that when we were practicing. But also that experience of being able to be part of that community meant a lot to them. They weren’t able to have the chitchat with their friends and comment on the match as the match was unfolding, but the fact they were able to participate in this massive group experience was clearly really important to them.

Chris: That’s really heart warming to hear. What did it mean to their family?

Dominique: I think because it had such deep meaning for them, it made a difference for them, and for their partner. It is really hard living with a progressive condition and depression often kicks in, but this was a moment that would genuinely give them a massive mood lift. I think that was probably the biggest impact we could see.

It put the individual in a better frame of mind to then be able to engage in other things. It’s the things that form part of your personal identity that I think people struggle with, and miss, the most. Those are things that people want to retrieve through therapy and are the most motivating for someone.

Chris: Are there times when the results of an assessment do not match what someone is describing about their problem? If so, does this alter your approach to developing a plan?

Dominique: Yes, it wouldn't be unheard of for formal assessments to show that someone didn’t have a noticeable difficulty or ‘problem’. Sometimes a therapist might interpret this as “there is no problem, therefore there's nothing that can be or needs to be done”. But when somebody is that troubled and that bothered by something though, you have to understand that your assessments aren’t sensitive enough. You have to probe and peel back the layers of the onion to get to the centre of the issue.

And imagine what long-term impact that could have on somebody's mental health - to know that something isn’t right and that when you try to tell someone you are finding something difficult, this is rejected?

This is why that person-led approach and designing therapy goals that are specific to their needs and interests. It's also important to acknowledge and address any concerns the individual may have, even if they are not reflected in the physical assessment.

Overall, the approach is centered on the individual and their unique situation.

Chris: Thanks Dominique, that’s a really heartwarming story and it was great you could share it here.

Listen to Dominique’s conversations with colleagues in the first season of our new podcast: Me & SLT - The Career Podcast for Speech & Language Therapists.

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