Casey has been working in her field for over 5 years and has vast experience working as a Speech-Language Pathologist/Neonatal Therapist. Learn more about what a Speech Therapist does and how Casey works with preterm infants.
PREEMIEWORLD: Why did you choose your current profession?
CASEY: My older brother, Patrick, was diagnosed with intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder when I was just a toddler. I am the youngest of 4 children. My Mom always tells me that I taught myself how to do a lot on my own, because looking back, my parents were under a ton of stress trying to navigate a diagnosis that wasn’t super common at the time.
Of course, they wanted the best for my brother. We all did. Every speech-language pathologist (SLP) that he came in contact with seemed to be intimidated by his diagnosis and how he presented. Ultimately, in the end, it was my brother and my family that suffered. My brother is non-verbal, continues to require the use of adult diapers, walks on his tippy toes and still has not seen a speech-language pathologist that will devote the time to him that he truly needs.
Patrick is now 32 years old. He could have been provided with so much support and intervention much earlier on, which would have changed the trajectory of not only his life, but my family’s life, forever. I have memories of my brother speaking and saying my name. All of a sudden that just stopped. My brother served as my motivation to be a trusted professional in my community. I know that I have a responsibility to provide exceptional care and evidence-based practice with each patient that I serve. I take my job seriously, I care for my patients and I care for their families. I realize that when we know better, we truly do better, and as a speech-language pathologist, I have the ability to change people’s lives forever. In terms of choosing the advanced area of practice of the NICU, I took a pediatric feeding course in graduate school. At the time, I wasn’t even aware that SLPs could work in the NICU!
As a result of my brother’s diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, I have always been interested in sensory system development and how it is vital for optimal neurodevelopmental outcomes. I had a placement in graduate school that served NICU graduates and I knew then that I wanted to serve the actual NICU infant, to minimize their need/risk for future therapies later on in their development.
PREEMIEWORLD: What do you want other professionals to know about what you do?
CASEY: When a speech-language pathologist (or occupational therapist/physical therapist) steps foot into the NICU, they are viewed as a neonatal therapist. We specialize in every aspect of infant development. Neonatal therapists are highly specialized and provide individualized therapeutic interventions. Neonatal therapy is an advanced area of practice across each therapy discipline (SLP, OT, PT).
Typically, when one thinks about what a therapist does, they may think that we help patients after a stroke or someone who sustained a motor vehicle accident. While both are true, the NICU doesn’t operate on this model. Meaning, we aren’t waiting for something to go wrong for an infant to require our services. We operate on a pre-habilitative model, we aren’t waiting for something to need to be “fixed,” we try to prevent any developmental differences in the first place. As a speech-language pathologist, one of my specialty areas is swallowing and feeding, but this isn’t all that I do. As previously mentioned, I am a neonatal therapist as well.
Neonatal therapists focus primarily on the following: neuroprotection (strategies utilized to support/protect the developing brain); supporting the best possible long-term developmental outcomes; nurturing the infant/family relationship and providing continuous education to staff and families. Something I say a lot to parents that seems to make sense for most is that we work to bridge the gap between the expected environment of the womb to the unexpected environment of the NICU. We are knowledgeable about every single stage of brain development as well as each stage of sensory system development. We promote a healing environment to facilitate the best neurodevelopmental outcomes as possible.
For more information, I encourage you to go to: www.neonataltherapists.com. Here you will find everything that relates to neonatal therapy.
PREEMIEWORLD: What advice do you give to preemie parents?
CASEY: Find a support system and love them hard. Be a fervent advocate for your baby. Ask questions. Don’t wait for your baby to require therapy services, be proactive and try to get your baby enrolled before other issues arise. Take time for you, because YOU matter.
PREEMIEWORLD: Fun Facts: Tell us a fun or quirky fact about you.
CASEY: I have 2 Golden Retrievers, Buddy and Gracie, that I just adore! In terms of the NICU, I spoke about my journey with Theresa Richard on The Swallow Your Pride podcast, episode 101, and I hope you will give it a listen! When I am not working in the NICU, I am operating my own mobile swallowing diagnostics company called TexScope, which services the Dallas/Fort-Worth metroplex.
PREEMIEWORLD: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
CASEY: I am a Certified Neonatal Therapist, meaning that prior to applying for certification and taking an examination, I completed multiple (50+) hours of continuing education, completed at least 3500 hours of time with NICU infants and completed 40 hours of mentored experience. My motivation to achieve this goal was facilitated by my own personal experience with the NICU.
My oldest sister delivered a full-term still born, Max, in March 2018. Her pregnancy had no complications, everything was perfect, until it wasn’t. I held him the day he was born and that is something I will never forget. It broke me, but motivated me to want to be better for all babies. The way I got through this nightmare was by studying and learning as much as I could, to better serve all NICU infants.
Then, in March 2019, my sister delivered twin girls, Minnie and Margo, at 32.6 weeks gestation. It was like everything was coming full circle. I was able to use my year of mourning, my year of pushing myself to know better/do better, to be a better advocate for my nieces. Every time I step foot in the NICU, I work to honor Max, Minnie and Margo and all fragile infants. If you listen to the previously mentioned podcast episode, you’ll be able to hear more of my story.
Feel free to follow me on Instagram- @caseylewis_slp to watch my journey of advocating and supporting all NICU infants and their families.