By: Melissa Castino Reid, Rachel’s mom
Back in 2011, my daughter, Rachel Reid, aged 4, began occupational, physical, and speech therapy in response to her pair of strokes. Her future looked dim as the light faded from her blue eyes. Would I ever see the original girl I gave birth to in 2006?
Gillette’s rehabilitation therapy team is a part of that answer, and in particular, I’d like to highlight Sue Ellen, a speech professional who helped at the very beginning. She taught lessons about recovery and offered hope.
I met Sue at the beginning when we landed at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul. With her frosty blond hair, petite form, and large spirit and heart, she worked tirelessly with Rachel on swallowing and speech. One thing I loved about Sue was that she never treated Rachel as “differently abled,” but rather “perfectly able.”
This was hard for me to accept; here was Rachel, unable to talk, yet Sue’s energetic spirit and patience forced me to believe things would improve.
With a toy microphone in her hand, Sue leaned in close to my kid and said, “Rachel, let’s sing A, B, C. OK, ready? A, B, C, D….” She held the phone to Rachel’s mouth. Nothing came out, yet she opened it in an effort to give us E, F, G.
My body was tense and tight as I held my breath in those early stages of her recovery. How could I have hope in moments like this? As I felt such despair, there was Sue, offering the light of possibility: “I know you can do it! Come on, Rachel. You know the next letters…” Sue always believed that Rachel’s ability was “in there.”
I’ll never forget the first flicker of optimism I felt. While Rachel never lost the ability to protect her airwaves, her swallowing skills switched off, which meant she needed a feeding tube.
“Sue, how do we get her to swallow again?” I asked, my face pinched with worry.
“Well, sometimes you just gotta give her the right motivation, and it just happens,” she said, as she wheeled her chair close to Rachel with a lollipop. “Alright Miss Rachel. I have a lollipop, and I want you to give it a good lick…and then swallow. OK? Here we go…”
Within seconds, Rachel licked and swallowed, just like that. What I thought might take years took place right away thanks to Sue. Shortly thereafter, we removed Rachel’s feeding tube so that she could eat real food.
Finally, the sentence that stuck with me from Sue was this: “Rachel’s language is preserved.” She explained apraxia’s terrain; my daughter’s language likely never left, but the ability to speak was disabled. Like a bridge that connects the brain to the mouth, that connection had collapsed thanks to the strokes. Yet, Sue saw that we could rebuild it with the help of therapy.
Now, Rachel can speak hundreds of words and string together sentences to communicate. Rachel can greet her by saying, “Hi Sue.”
To Sue, I say “thank you.”
Editor’s note: Read more about Rachel’s journey here.