By Chloe Jitts
In April 2016, three fellow speech pathology students and I were lucky enough to complete our 4th year clinical placement in Vietnam. This was enabled through the South East Asia stream, where students complete an elective to learn about speech pathology in South East Asia, and NGO’s like Trinh Foundation Australia. We also complete an Individual Learning Project (ILP) and undertake a clinical placement abroad.
Boarding that plane, I did not know what to expect. All of the pre-departure training was running through my mind, but at the end of the day can you really be fully prepared? Prepared to submerge yourself in another culture? Prepared to be flexible and adapt to anything thrown your way? This placement did not only build and develop my clinical skills, but my knowledge about by profession beyond my own border.
We touched down, and even though you are away from home, you feel like you’ve come home. Vietnam is a country that welcomes you with open arms, both courteous and kind. Every taxi that we took, ever shop owner we came into contact with went above and beyond that which was necessary. Don’t get me wrong, it is a busy place. Cars fly past in every direction, and it is at your best interest to walk ‘slow and steady’. But despite this, within the chaos, there is a peace. An understanding that time value does not equate to pressure, that family is first and at the end of the day, everything just works.
The first two weeks were spent at the Kianh Day Centre in Hoi An. The story of Jackie Rafter, the centre’s founder, is one which must be told and will be soon released in a video for my ILP. In the meantime however, let me tell you about the children and the staff. There are 99 beautiful children who have the opportunity to learn in a supportive classroom environment, led by talented staff members who are there bright and early every day. Under the supervision of speech pathologists, and in collaboration with teachers, teachers’ aides, and interpreters, we worked with more than half of the children. Daily group therapy focused on articulation, picture exchange, social skills, and object/picture matching. Individual therapy saw us working with children with autism, cerebral palsy, visual and hearing impairments, and developmental delay. The skill level of teachers at the Centre, who have not necessarily received formal training, was astounding.
I had the privilege of working with a little girl who was both deaf and blind. The reality of her impairments heightened for me the reality that we take our everyday functions for granted. Building rapport and sustaining joint-attention for more than 10 seconds, was a therapy goal in itself. This was not by her own fault, imagine not seeing or hearing for your whole life, and the world you must create for yourself? I was honored to slowly be ‘accepted’ into this world of hers, and to witness how others such as her classroom teacher, knew the inside functioning of this world and how best to communicate with her. She was a smart, intelligent girl and every day I was humbled by her tenacity, strength, and her ‘sass’ towards life.
Whilst at the Kianh centre I also worked with a young boy who had cerebral palsy. This meant that he was unable to control free movement of his limbs, and was unable to talk. Every session spent next to him provided me with insight as to what it really is like to be unable to communicate, and this broke my heart. He was smart, kind and had an incredibly funny sense of humor and this boy’s voice needed to be heard. In collaboration with the teachers I established a simplified version of his communication book – and it made me overjoyed to see if being used every time I walked past the classroom.
Our final week came around fast and this saw us travelling to Ho Chi Minh City to work with speech therapists at various hospitals. A speech therapist who previously graduated from the two-year post-graduate training course delivered at Pham Ngoc Thach University of Medicine, which is supported by Trinh Foundation Australia and the University of Newcastle, provides joint clinical support with clinical educator from around Australia. We each had different experiences with assessments and therapy for voice, swallowing, early language, and speech.
One highlight for me was spending time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit ward with premature babies who had cleft lips and cleft palates, and witnessed the positive impact that speech pathology had in the lives of these children and their families. During this time the speech pathologist did not only display assurance of knowledge, but a gentleness and grace in client-centered practice and an understanding that these mothers needed further support. It was a wonderful experience to work collaboratively with the Vietnamese speech therapists and understand their role in delivering a service that is in such high demand.
Following my trip, a part of my Individual Learning Project now involves the production of a short video to raise awareness of the need for speech therapy services in Vietnam. Whilst the Kianh Centre is an important step towards providing those services, there are still only 32 Vietnamese-trained speech therapists to support a population of 90 million. Speech pathology is a young profession in Vietnam, and the speech therapists are pioneers of a profession without normative data and standardised assessments. Despite this, they are talented and committed, seeing positive results and therefore the word is spreading. The Trinh Foundation welcomes volunteer speech pathologists to assist in the growth and development of speech pathology in Vietnam, and I would encourage more Australians to get involved.
On our trip there were challenges, but also opportunities. We saw the importance of flexibility, embraced holistic practice, and focused on the needs and culture of the people with whom we worked. For me, considering speech pathology beyond our own borders and into Majority World Countries, is a passion that will never die and I hope that one day communication will be a human right that everyone can access.
Thank you, UON and Dr Sally Hewat, for such a life changing opportunity.
Chloe Jitts is a 4th Year Student studying Speech Pathology at the University of Newcastle.