Three students in Kean’s Speech-Language Pathology Doctorate (SLPD) program are bringing their training and skills to the COVID-19 response, helping rehabilitate patients coming off ventilators and protecting the quality of life of vulnerable patients.

The speech-language pathologists are providing therapies for voice, cognition and dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, to patients in hospitals, nursing homes or their homes.

Christina Darius from Linden, a first-year doctoral student at Kean, works at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, rehabilitating COVID-19 patients who lost their ability to speak and swallow due to decreased muscle strength after being on ventilators.

“We initially work a lot on their voice because a strong voice is a good indication that the airway is protected while swallowing, which they need to start eating again,” she said. “We are in very close contact with patients, and often times they cough while swallowing during evaluations, so we have to be very careful.”

Darius wears layers of personal protective equipment (PPE), but admits being on the front line of the COVID pandemic is “nerve-racking.” She thinks of her grandmother, who died from COVID-19 separated from her family in another hospital, as she helps other people’s family members recover.

“Doing everything I can to help save someone else’s loved one makes it all worthwhile for me,” Darius said.

Nikki Hurd of Newark, Delaware will complete her SLPD studies in August. She works with COVID-positive and other geriatric patients at two healthcare facilities in Delaware.

“What has been challenging for me is going to a facility at the beginning of the week and the next time I go to provide services, the patient is no longer there. The patient I just saw two days ago was overcome by COVID-19. It’s happening so quickly and frequently that it takes an emotional toll on you,” Hurd said.

She finds inspiration from community support — when local businesses bring lunch or coffee to front line workers to show their appreciation, or she glimpses messages written in chalk outside the facilities, such as, “Heroes work here.”

“It makes me stick my chest out a little further when I see that and gives me encouragement,” she said.

Christina Barnes is working with COVID-positive patients through Holy Redeemer Home Care & Hospice in Philadelphia, treating them in healthcare facilities and their homes. Aware of the risks of cross-contamination to herself and her vulnerable patients, she follows a strict protocol that includes wearing two sets of scrubs and removing one before getting back in her car.

“I see COVID patients at the end of the day,” she said. “First and foremost, my responsibility is to my patients — to care, comfort and heal.”

All three credit Kean’s SLPD program and faculty with giving them the flexibility to contribute to the COVID-19 response while continuing their studies and developing a deeper understanding of the profession.

“The program has made me more observant and analytical of our practices and more critical of my own contributions to the field to help move it forward,” Hurd said.

Mahchid Namazi, Ph.D., executive director of the School of Communication Disorders and Deafness, said the program is designed to foster critical thinking and adaptability in its students.

“At a time when typical evaluation and treatment procedures are not available, the rigorous training through our speech-language programs, both at the master’s and doctoral levels, is even more vital for students planning to work in healthcare settings,” she said.