By Jenna Lebovits
The prevalence of speech and swallowing disorders in the United States is staggering and often overlooked. Over 9 million adults report experiencing a lasting voice-related issue, and one in 12 children between ages 3 and 17 has a speech, voice or swallowing disorder, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
“You can’t separate communication and swallowing disorders from the whole person—it affects every aspect of life,” says Marta Kazandjian, a board-certified swallowing disorders specialist and 2020 American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Fellow. The department, led by Kazandjian, employs an evidence-based, integrative and individualized approach. A team of dedicated clinicians work with a broad spectrum of patients, from individuals with cancer and neurodegenerative disorders to those with physical traumas. Patients are treated with state-of-the-art instrumentation, such as biofeedback machines that measure tongue and lip posture, strength and endurance.
A trailblazer in her field with 35 years of clinical experience, Kazandjian oversees a group of highly trained specialists who share a common goal: to meet patients where they’re at and provide personalized services. “I want to know what makes each person different, special and individual,” says the medical speech pathologist. “If that person’s favorite thing in the world is to go out to dinner, then we’re going to read menus, learn how to make choices to identify their favorite foods and attend social events, all in the most optimal way.”
Patients at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital can expect a robust and collaborative care plan. “If someone is severely dysphagic, or swallowing impaired, and I need to recommend alternative feeding, like a feeding tube, I’ll work on their swallowing, but I’ll also work closely with the dietitian to ensure that they’re getting adequate nutrition,” says Kazandjian. She, in conjunction with one of Stony Brook Southampton’s physical therapists, created a program they dubbed Voice Gym (think: group exercise meets singing class) to incorporate fitness in treating brain and movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease. When caring for patients in this population, she and her team believe it can be a life-or-death intervention. “Up to 90 percent of people are at risk of losing their ability to speak,” says Kazandjian, “so we have to address both communication and swallowing with neurodegenerative populations, because swallowing complications account for 70 percent of mortality in that population.”
Kazandjian hopes to expand over the next few years, and secure independent headquarters for the growing program. “My goal is to build an interprofessional swallowing center to meet neurological disease and be part of a neurological institute, so that we can continue to offer services that are not provided on Long Island. I want to stick out as an example for a program that stands out nationally.” 240 Meeting House Lane, Southampton; southampton.stonybrookmedicine.edu