Speech pathologist Kirsten Toll: “All he wanted was to eat Christmas dinner with his family”

Bupa speech pathologist Kirsten Toll has worked around the world in some pretty amazing places, but she’s about to embark on her most exciting role yet in West Melbourne.

It’s the little things many people take for granted that Kirsten Toll helps others achieve – from coffee catch-ups with friends to family Christmas dinners.

Kirsten, a speech pathologist for Bupa Therapy, works with people who have speech and language disorders so they can keep up their favourite social activities.

“I love that social interaction. To me, that’s the crux of everything: if you’re isolated and alone, it’s much harder to get better,” she says.

Even something simple like the privilege of eating dinner with your family is often taken for granted.
Kirsten Toll, Bupa Therapy Speech Pathologist

Kirsten recalls a man she worked with who had a progressive illness and was told he would never eat again.

“Many people don’t realise that speech pathologists can help with swallowing disorders,” Kirsten says.

“There was a risk that food could get into this man’s lungs and he could develop pneumonia, so he was being fed through a tube. That was devastating for him, all he wanted was to eat Christmas dinner with his family.”

Swallowing disorders, also called dysphagia, occur when neck muscles make it hard to swallow, often following a stroke or due to a progressive illness like Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

Kirsten says she conducted further testing of his swallowing function under xray (videofluoroscopy) which indicated things weren’t as dire as his doctors had originally thought.

Before long, with Kirsten’s help, he was able to experience the taste of food again for the first time in three months.

“It’s all about seeing what you can work with. Quite often someone will be so scared to eat the first time their feeding tube is taken out, so I’ll sit down and eat with them.”

Kirsten stumbled into her lifelong passion for speech therapy when she was travelling around Rome as an 18-year-old. She was studying science at the University of Melbourne and met an American speech pathologist who told her all about her work.

“I thought, ‘I want to do that.’”

From that chance conversation, Kirsten went on to study Speech Pathology at Latrobe University, and worked in neurology and neurosciences at St Vincent’s Hospital, Caulfield Hospital, Alfred Hospital and Monash Hospital. She also works with 3rd and 4th year speech pathology students from the Australian Catholic University.

She also spent time working in London, including at the “amazingly dynamic” Homerton Hospital Regional Neurological Rehab Unit.

“They had the most progressive consultants there, so if you had a great idea and said ‘I want to look at this person’s brain while they’re singing or while they’re listening to music’, they’d let you do it,” Kirsten says.

Music therapy is one of my passions. Singing seems to work like automatic speech, so some people who can’t speak at all can communicate through song.

She says this technique can help most speech and language disorders including aphasia (where your brain tries to look for the right word), dyspraxia (where you know the word but your mouth and muscles have problems formulating the word) and dysarthria (weakness of the speech muscles causing slow or slurred speech).

As a speech pathologist, Kirsten says she’s excited for what the NDIS means for people wanting to achieve their therapy and life goals.

“There have been many studies highlighting the importance of the frequency of therapy in order to make a difference,” she says.

“If someone tells me their goal is to go to a coffee shop and chat with friends, then they may need to visit a speech pathologist as often as possible in order to achieve that.

“The NDIS will hopefully give people autonomy to have therapy as often as they need it to achieve their goals. Many people haven’t had that luxury before the NDIS.”

Kirsten’s devotion to communication isn’t limited to people with speech disorders; she’s also committed to educating others to help them understand different conditions which affect speech.

One program she recently ran was with third-year paramedic students from Monash University and a group of people with aphasia (i.e. the speech disorder that makes it hard to access the right word).

“Paramedic graduates often don’t know what aphasia is, they may not know how to communicate with this group of individuals, yet they’re likely to be the first on the scene if they have another stroke or heart attack. If paramedics understand conditions like aphasia, they won’t mistake the person for being drunk, on drugs or confuse their symptoms for a different condition.”

Kirsten says the program included a two-hour ‘speed dating’ session between the paramedic students and the people living with aphasia.

“The paramedic students had to figure out their story, what’s happened to them, how they’re going, what their medical history is,” she says.

“The next time they meet someone with aphasia, they’ll know how to communicate with them and they won’t be scared to look at their ipad and draw pictures, or speak slowly. It was fantastic. The paramedic students were blown away and the people with aphasia were empowered.”

Kirsten Toll has taken on a new role at Bupa’s new Therapy Centre in West Melbourne. She has a special interest in speech and language disorders associated with stroke, acquired brain injury and progressive neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, PSP and MND. She also has extensive experience with swallowing disorders and using new technologies such as iPad and IT applications for speech. She'll join an experienced team of clinicians including occupational therapist Jacelyn Goh and Physiotherapist Vicky Cook.