From speech to music, speech-language pathologist Deborah A. Vega, MS, CCC-SLP, HC, champions the universal power of communication to connect.
How long have you worked at Shepherd Center, and what is your role?
I’ve been with Shepherd for 17 1/2 years, and I love the work we do! I serve as one of the primary speech-language pathologists (SLP) in the ICU and the Comprehensive Rehabilitation Unit (CRU). We diagnose and treat communication, cognition, voice, and swallowing disorders. We develop individualized treatment plans to help restore or improve patients’ abilities. We also empower patients and families with education and training so they can continue working on their goals after they leave Shepherd. We want to ensure that everyone is set up for success!
What kinds of communication barriers do the patients you work with face?
Without communication, we could not exchange ideas, innovate, build relationships, or enjoy our favorite activities. Communication barriers can be devastating. Ventilators can disrupt the physical processes that allow patients to speak and SLPs work closely with pulmonary and respiratory therapists to address those issues. We also help people communicate in other ways, such as using a spelling board, yes/no cards, writing, texting, or mouthing words. We want every patient to have a way to communicate with family, friends, and staff and a way to make their immediate wants and needs known.
Aphasia is another communication barrier. It can result from stroke or injury and affect a person’s ability to understand and express language and sometimes to read and write.
I think of our brains like a file cabinet. Before a brain injury, the files were nicely organized, and language could be easily accessed at any moment. After a brain injury, it's like dropping those files on the floor. Some papers stay in their files, while others scatter or get lost. As SLPs, we help patients reorganize the file cabinet so they can access their language. It’s exciting to witness patient progress!
We also work with voice disorders. The voice is a huge part of our identity and is connected to our emotions, self-expression, and confidence. When a person has a voice disorder, it can impact work or school performance. Our goal is to help patients communicate clearly and efficiently.
It’s not directly related to Speech Therapy, but certainly to communication — how does Shepherd staff work with patients who don’t speak English?
I am amazed by all the different languages we encounter. We have a translation hotline and arrange to have interpreters on-site. Sometimes, the staff uses Google Translate to help break down communication barriers. It can be scary when you are in an unfamiliar environment and don’t speak the language. I’ve seen this with our Spanish-speaking population. When I begin to speak in their native Spanish, it’s fantastic to see the relief and connection it brings. Occasionally, we have patients who are deaf and communicate with American Sign Language (ASL). As a former student of ASL, I love to brush up on my skills and communicate with this population! Regardless of the language, communication is vital in making us feel safe.
What’s the most fulfilling part of your job?
I love serving others and making a positive difference in the lives of those touched by catastrophic injuries. There is nothing like hearing a patient say “I love you” to their loved ones or smiling again because they are starting to regain their ability to communicate and connect. I consider myself richly blessed to give back in this unique way.
Mississippi University for Women; Speech-Language Pathology, Business Minor BS, MS. Magna cum laude
Institute of Integrative Nutrition, NYC; Certified Holistic Health Coach
Member of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the American Academy of Drugless Practitioners, and the Christian Medical and Dental Association.
Deborah won the 2021 Shepherd Center Best Employee Attitude Award.
Deborah is a classically trained vocalist and also trained in the Spanish art of Flamenco. She has collaborated with internationally acclaimed artists, has studied several instruments, and has performed in venues throughout Atlanta. Her greatest passion is singing at church and sharing music with messages that speak to the heart.
Cooking is a big part of Deborah’s life. She considers her kitchen her workshop.
Deborah is a nationally ranked epee fencer and four-time top-three medalist in Georgia.
Interview by Ruth Underwood
Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.