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This speech therapist wants to help her patients find their voice again
By Delle Chan

Healthcare Merit Award (awarded by MOH Holdings) recipient Nurshafinah Isa finds fulfilment in helping others overcome their communication struggles and regain their speech abilities

In a career that speaks to her, speech therapist Nurshafinah Mohd Isa enjoys helping others find their voices.

Understanding how speech plays a vital role in connecting with others, Woodlands Health speech therapist Nurshafinah Mohd Isa (Shafinah) derives meaning from being able to help patients recover their speech functions.

Currently on rotation at Yishun Community Hospital’s neurology ward, Ms Shafinah assists those who have suffered strokes or traumatic head injuries by helping them to overcome their communication struggles through language, speech and cognitive rehabilitation. 

“We teach them how to form words using their lip muscles and tongue if patients have difficulty producing speech,” she explains. 

“We also share strategies to help them recall words if they have trouble with memory. In essence, we restore voices to the patients under our care.” 

A multifaceted role

Having graduated two years ago with a Bachelor of Applied Science (Speech Pathology) from the University of Sydney, the 29-year-old joined the workforce during the pandemic and was a speech therapist in charge of Covid-19 wards. 

“Speech therapy was a crucial part of the recovery programme for many elderly patients who had swallowing problems due to breathing difficulties,” she says. 

To create awareness among patients and their families, she also had to serve as an “advocate” for her job. Many assume that speech therapists merely teach stroke patients to swallow, but there is more to the role than that. 

She explains: “Rehabilitation involves doing mouth exercises to activate the muscles, in addition to swallowing exercises. It may seem easy to us, but it can be quite challenging for them.” 

Another common problem among stroke patients is aphasia, or language loss, where they have difficulties expressing themselves or understanding what someone is saying. In such cases, confrontational naming therapy is applied, where patients are shown an object and then supported in recalling what it is. 

Seeing her patients improve keeps Ms Shafinah going. “One of them was only 40 when she underwent surgery for a brain tumour and had difficulty talking afterwards,” she says. “We worked through her speech issues, and it was so heartwarming to see her progress from not being able to say a word to forming sentences.”

Growth opportunities

While studying biotechnology at Singapore Polytechnic, Ms Shafinah’s lecturer introduced her to Healthcare Scholarships. Among the career options offered, speech therapy called out to her the most. 

In 2015, she received the Healthcare Merit Award (awarded by MOH Holdings), which enabled her to pursue her degree while marrying her interests in biology and languages. 

As part of an overseas placement, she spent several weeks at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney, learning how to use standard language assessments and observing an ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) specialist at work in the rehabilitation department. “Thanks to this, it was a seamless transition when I had to use some of the assessments back in Singapore,” she adds.

More importantly, the scholarship proved to be a massive source of support – in more ways than one. Besides providing the financial support for her education, she also appreciated having a scholarship officer engaging her regularly. 

Some of her fellow scholars also went to the same university, “so when the going got tough, we had one another to lean on,” she reflects. 

As a scholar, she was also given opportunities to hone her leadership skills. “For instance, I was tasked to train therapy assistants in carrying out rehabilitation exercises and preparing modified diets and fluids,” says Ms Shafinah, who intends to use the experience to improve her communication and people management skills. 

Finding immense fulfilment in her field, she says it is important to keep an open mind when deciding on a career “because you never know what opportunities lie ahead”.