“My brother in Ireland had a child with Down Syndrome and he had an awful time finding people who were skilled in speech therapy to help his child,” Dowling explained, speaking to the Echo earlier this week from his office in the LIJ Hearing and Speech Center, which is the oldest and largest comprehensive hearing and speech facility on Long Island.
“In the process of trying, he found out that there were a lot of other kids in his area who needed help. He started up an agency in Ireland to tackle the problem and called me to ask if there was anything I could do.”
Upon further research, Dowling found out that the University in his native Limerick had recently introduced a graduate program in Speech and Language Therapy to help Irish hospitals meet the demand for specialists in the field. The University of Limerick is currently one of the only institutions in Ireland where people can train to become speech and language therapists at undergraduate level.
Because of the shortage of trained specialists, however, program co-coordinators at the University struggle each year to find clinical work placements for their students.
Dowling approached Allan Abramson, LIJ’s chairman of otolaryngology, to discuss the feasibility of setting up a program to host clinical placements for the Limerick students. Abramson, who visits Ireland frequently on biking trips, was very enthusiastic about the idea.
“We reached out to the University and asked if they’d be interested in setting up some sort of exchange program,” he said.
“So the people from Limerick came over to us, we talked and we started it up.”
The program, now in its third year, brings speech pathology students from Limerick to New York each summer, where they spend five weeks at the LIJ Hearing and Speech Center, gaining hands-on experience dealing with speech patients. In addition, the students also spend time at Transitions of Long Island rehabilitation center, where they work with patients undergoing rehabilitation for traumatic brain injury.
While students must be able to cover their own airfare and expenses, LIJ provides them with accommodation and a car for the duration of their stay. Arriving two at time, six students in total will take part in this year’s program.
Graduate students Norma Twomey and Joy O’Brien have just finished their placements.
“We’ve been exposed to a huge number of caseloads and clients,” said Twomey, speaking to the Echo last week.
“Cases you might see once or twice a year in Ireland, you see once or twice a week here. Yesterday we were in surgery watching an open head cochlear implant. We just wouldn’t get those opportunities in Ireland, because it’s relatively new field. But there is a real need for it because the waiting lists are so massive.”
“There is a whole different way of doing things here, a different approach to speech therapy,” added O’Brien, who noted that she found therapists in LIJ deal with patients from a more holistic and less clinical perspective than she has seen in Ireland.
“You wouldn’t get the same opportunities in Ireland as we have gotten here. I’ve seen traumatic brain injury patients, stroke patients; we’ve been working with voice patients. I wish it had been three times as long.”
Professor Sue Franklin, who heads the Speech and Language Therapy department in UL, said the program has been “really excellent placement experience for the students,” when contacted by the Echo.
“In Ireland, we have a shortage of speech language therapists anyway and that’s why the university started this course,” she said.
“It’s difficult to get placement experience dealing with stroke patients and voice patients in particular. We’re incredibly grateful and we feel it’s very important that the program continues.”
Dowling says the feedback from students and staff at the center has been very positive.
“I’m very pleased with how the program is going — students go back with an increased level of expertise and hopefully they will stay in Ireland and use that expertise after they graduate,” he said.
“The students learn and so do the teachers. The staff here love the program. They want to enhance and increase it.”