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Clinic Helping to Restore Voice of a Man Who Never Forgot the Voiceless

Henry Hecker with his wife, Julia. Henry receives speech therapy through the Katz School's virtual community clinic, which provides free services to the Yeshiva University community and individuals residing in New York State.

By Dave DeFusco

For years, Henry Hecker was a supervisor at Your Choice at Home, a Brooklyn-based home health care agency, and a physical therapist with his own practice in Washington Heights. Beloved in the community, he offered his services pro bono, sometimes buying food and presents for his patients and their children and grandchildren who couldn’t afford it.

In 2019, a brain injury ended Henry’s career and deprived him of his ability to speak, but on a recent Zoom call, he was determined to get his voice back with the aid of two students in the Katz School’s M.S. in Speech-Language Pathology.

In separate half-hour sessions, SLP students Alexa Bliss and Joanna Pace patiently and enthusiastically guided Henry through exercises to reclaim his memory, helped him articulate words and phrases, and encouraged him to advocate for himself, with Julia, his wife of 34 years, nearby.

“Henry has such a great attitude,” said Pace. “Just reminding him that he's doing well and noting his progress motivates him. Small steps are still good steps, so celebrating every single little one is a step in the right direction.”

As a result of the brain injury, Henry has only partial control of his diaphragm, a dome-shaped sheet of muscle that enables breathing and speech. Taking a deep breath and articulating long phrases have been challenging for him. In addition, he has difficulty with cognition and swallowing.

“With Henry, we’ve been working hard on clarity of speech, phrase length and the words he uses and chooses,” said Andrew Christler, clinical assistant professor and director of clinical education for the Katz School’s medical speech-language pathology program.

During the Zoom call, Bliss showed Henry a slide with brightly colored pictures of the sun, a tree and a beach blanket. Henry was able to, with great emphasis, utter tree and sun, but he needed coaxing by Bliss to say blanket, to remember to draw a deep breath in order to speak loudly, and to produce each sound within the word.

Joanna Pace, above, and Alexa Bliss, below, both students in the M.S. in Speech-Language Pathology, have patiently and enthusiastically guided Henry through speech therapy exercises.

Bliss then told him to make a mental note of the pictures he had just seen before she took away the slide. She counted off 30 seconds on her watch and then showed it to him again. After he repeated the names of the objects, she asked him to identify the season represented in the picture. He quickly offered winter, but when she singled out each object, he reversed course and chose summer.

“I feel like he’s gotten to the point where he is able to see the beach, see the sand, see the water,” said Bliss, “and he’s able to keep that in his mind instead of just repeating the words.”

Julia, Henry’s wife, discovered the Katz School’s virtual community clinic in 2021, after several attempts at receiving speech therapy elsewhere. The clinic offers free telehealth speech, language, cognitive and swallowing services to all Yeshiva University faculty, students and staff, as well as individuals residing in New York State.

“We are very, very happy with the Katz School clinic,” said Julia. “The services we’re receiving are much better than what we received at big hospitals, and the students are caring, nice and good at what they do.”

The virtual community clinic is staffed by graduate student clinicians and all evaluation and treatment sessions are fully supervised by New York State-licensed faculty practitioners. Rita Rosenman, a medical speech-language pathologist for 16 years, regularly reviews Henry’s treatment plan with Bliss and Pace, and provides guidance on techniques and strategies they may never have practiced, such as semantic feature analysis, which helps clients, like Henry, with word retrieval.

Alexa Bliss, a speech-language pathology student, is helping Henry reclaim his voice.

“Joanna and Alexa have capably implemented the treatment plan,” said Rosenman, “and if difficulties with it arise, they’re confident enough to know what to do.”

Professor Christler said Bliss and Pace have learned to integrate their clinical experiences with the concepts they’ve been taught in the 55-credit medically based SLP curriculum to provide effective speech therapy without the benefit of being in Henry’s presence.

“They're two of our top students,” he said. “They go above and beyond what’s expected of them every time. They have a lot of empathy for people and that has been as important to their success as what they’ve learned in the program.”

Julia said that when Henry wasn’t helping his own patients recover from illness or injury, he was mentoring students and spending time with his children. His daughter, Lisa, a speech-language pathologist in Ossining, N.Y., encourages his rehabilitation by challenging him to a game of chess, and his son, Samy, makes gefilte fish and chicken soup that they eat together while watching a movie.

“Henry never failed his students and was loved by his patients and staff,” said Julia, who noted that it’ll be their 35th wedding anniversary in June. “He’s doing the best he can now. It isn’t easy, but he has good care.”