PBMC speech pathologist reflects on medical mission to Ukraine

Riverhead native Caitlin Saxtein, a speech language pathologist at Peconic Bay Medical Center who specializes in swallowing disorders, put her unique skill set to good use during a mission to Lviv, Ukraine in November.

“I have an extensive background volunteering with different organizations,” she said. “I definitely enjoy and value volunteering, so going on a medical mission was something I’ve always wanted to do. However, most medical missions involve pediatrics, like doing cranial, facial abnormalities in babies and cleft palates, lips and things like that. I work primarily with the adult population and so I was really looking for something in my wheelhouse.”

During the week-long medical mission with the Face to Face humanitarian program through the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Ms. Saxtein provided free medical services for wounded soldiers and civilians affected by the disastrous war in Ukraine, which has been going on for two years since Russia attacked on Feb. 24, 2022.

As part of PBMC’s speech pathology team, Ms. Saxtein provides therapeutic techniques to assist patients recovering from strokes, vocal cord paralysis, tracheostomies and other conditions to regain and improve impaired language, communication, cognitive skills and swallowing deficits. Strokes, traumatic brain injuries, anaphylaxis, dementia or progressive diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and ALS are all common causes of swallowing impairment.

Ms. Saxtein, one of Long Island’s few board-certified specialists in swallowing and swallowing disorders, collaborated with other speech language pathologists and ear, nose and throat doctors to conduct the first fiberoptic evaluation of swallowing by speech language pathologists in Ukraine, according to a press release from PBMC.

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While in Lviv, she also hosted an academic day to empower over 300 Ukrainian speech language pathologists. Though this was Face to Face’s third mission to Ukraine, it was the first that included speech language pathologists. Ms. Saxtein said there was one other speech pathologist that went along on the medical mission.

“It was pretty amazing,” she said. “We worked primarily with soldiers who were either acutely ill, so they were in the hospital still and/or they were in the rehabilitation center. So a lot of them had traumatic brain injuries from the war, which led them to have communication issues and or swallowing [issues]. To have the physicians see the need to have a speech pathologist there to have these patients evaluated and seen, that was pretty amazing. We also got to sit in on surgeries that involve the head and the neck and swallowing, so to be able to collaborate with the physicians was amazing.”

Ms. Saxtein and the team that accompanied her also helped provide local speech language pathologists in Lviv with resources and tips to better prepare them to provide ongoing treatment for swallowing disorders or dysphagia as most in that city had only been trained to work with children.

“I think a big takeaway was an exchange of information, discussing clinical decision making in a war-torn country and modifying what we would do to best serve their patients,” she said. “A lot of the SLPs there were treating primarily pediatrics and then when the war broke out, they moved to treat adults, which is also just so amazing, but it’s really very different treating pediatric versus treating adults in the speech pathology world … it’s pretty amazing to see the pride for their country, and then just also how much they wanted to help their patients. Having those open conversations and education was great.”

Those lines of communication remain intact to this day, Ms. Saxtein said. To follow up, Ms. Saxtein will be hosting a webinar in April to continue the education.

“Some of the [Ukrainian] speech pathologists gathered some topics that they wanted more information on,” Ms. Saxtein said. “And so, we are going to host an education for them on those specific topics.”

Locally, Ms. Saxtein will be hosting a workshop for the community through PBMC’s Caregivers Center about dysphagia on Wednesday March 27 at 1 p.m. To register or attend in person contact the Caregivers Center at 631-548-6259 or email [email protected].