Cedars-Sinai Blog

Faces of Cedars-Sinai: Speech Therapist Heather Thompson

Heather Thompson, Cedars-Sinai, speech therapist

Meet speech therapist Heather Thompson! 

Heather has worked at Cedars-Sinai for 7 years, helping ALS and head and neck cancer patients communicate before, during, and after surgery, radiation, and other treatments.  

We sat down with Heather to learn more about her life inside and outside the medical center.

People see "therapy" as something you do after a surgery or treatment, but the earlier, the better. By working with patients before treatment, we can ensure they keep their "voice" during and after.

What led you to become a speech therapist?

Heather Thompson: My mom used to tell me that I should consider speech therapy as a career because I wanted to help people and I'm a chatterbox!

I was one of those kids who got in trouble in school for talking too much in class—and now I get in trouble for talking too much in meetings!

What's your main role with your patients?

HT: I see patients before, during, and after treatment. We'll follow up at 3 months, 6 months, 1 year. There can be late effects of radiation, so it's good to keep up the exercises and make sure none of the skills lapse.

With head and neck cancer patients, I make sure that they are able to eat and drink and communicate with their loved ones through the whole process of treatment and recovery. 

I sometimes work with laryngectomy patients who have their vocal cords removed, so giving them their voice back and their ability to eat and drink back is my role. 

ALS patients are losing their ability to communicate verbally, so I make sure they can "speak" with their loved ones in other ways. For them, we do "voice banking," where patients record sentences and phrases and the technology gives them their own "Siri" voice they can use later. It means a lot to them and their family members.

We also look at writing aids, like pen and paper or writing tablets. Text messaging helps too!

Why is it important to work with patients before treatment starts?

HT: I always tell people that I'm an insurance policy. People see "therapy" as something you do after a surgery or treatment, but the earlier, the better. By working with patients before treatment, we can ensure they keep their "voice" during and after.

I see patients before the surgery/chemo/radiation. We go through basic baseline measurements (this is how much you eat, this is how much you weigh, this is what your speech sounds like, etc.). 

After treatment, there are going to be changes for patients, and I help retrain them on swallowing, exercises for the jaw, head and neck range of motion, and then we can go back to their baseline measurements to see how far we have to go to get back to normal.

Helping people eat and drink is a central part of your job as a speech therapist?

HT: Yes—especially during the holidays, which can be a big motivator. Patients want to be able to eat Thanksgiving dinner with their family. These activities are so important.

What's the most rewarding part of your job?

HT: For me, it's when patients don't need to see me ever again! They are back to normal life.

With ALS patients, we get emails from the family after the patient passes away and they have their family member's voice recorded forever.

How do you think your co-workers would describe you?

HT: They'd say I'm adventurous.

My co-workers are always asking me where I'm traveling to next. Last year I traveled to Canada, Ireland, and Spain. This year has been Hawaii and New England. I live for travel.

I'm a social person, and I like being the one who knows about something or someplace first. Wherever I go, I want to do what the locals do. 

I'm not good with making plans. In Ireland, I flew into Dublin and rented a car. I had no hotel reservations. I had ideas on what to do on vacation, but I had nothing planned. 

Life is what happens when you're busy making plans!