Dear Class of 2020,

We celebrate you.

You are the FIRST cohort of clinicians who will lead us into new opportunities, discoveries and challenges that none of us could have ever envisioned or experienced.

You are the FIRST to appreciate and engage with faculty who had to critically re-evaluate the content and delivery of courses they have taught for years in traditional classrooms.

You are the FIRST to experience the introduction of novel simulated clinical experiences through remote, interactive technologies.

You are the FIRST to be involved in fast tracking the approval and implementation of telepractice methods and technologies for the assessment and treatment of patients with dysphagia.

There is a sentiment in medicine that you don’t ever want to be the FIRST patient. However, we learn so much from the FIRST toward improving the path forward. COVID-19 will not define you or your graduation year, but it has resulted in a resilience that took most clinicians, like me, a decade to acquire. We went through a very rigorous graduate program and there were days that were challenging, yet our academic pathway, coursework and practicum were smooth and uninterrupted. You, on the other hand, have been faced with anxiety regarding whether you would be able to return to the classroom, complete your clinical hours or even graduate. But you are resilient, and you will emulate that skill for your patients who need it more than any of us.

I could never have been fully prepared to deal with the unpredictability and challenges surrounding the care of the patients I was asked to treat – parents and spouses devastated by not being able to feed their loved one, sadness and hurt when a misguided caregiver announced on the floor that a patient ‘failed’ a swallowing test after working so hard in therapy, patients who couldn’t meet goals, patients diagnosed with
cancer recurrence, patients readmitted with new strokes, patient deaths, physicians upset because I advocated for safe oral intake rather than blindly feeding at-risk patients, even being denied necessary equipment and space to do my work.

What picks you up off of the ground and motivates you to go to work each day are your patients. You have acquired the resilience necessary to advocate for them and optimize their outcome. You may have not had the in-person clinical experiences that most of us were privileged to experience, but you are so far ahead of where we were in gaining the fundamental skill of resilience. This resilience will bless you with the unique opportunities to bounce back and witness many FIRSTS – the first swallow without aspiration in the fluoroscopy suite, the happy tears during a patient’s first meal, the first sign of patient and family hope because of your clinical work, full recoveries and cured cancers.

Class of 2020, you will define the future for swallowing assessment and treatment in a post-COVID-19 era. There will continue to be patients with neurological disease, head and neck cancer and pulmonary disease who will need access to swallowing management in this new, challenging environment. You will be required to employ
extraordinary precautions to keep both you and your patients safe during the essential services you will provide. There will be new types and patterns of swallowing impairment in patients who have survived COVID-19 and consequent long-term intubation. You will lead the way. We will follow you, support you, and learn with you.

We are so proud of this cohort. Congratulations, you have truly earned it!

“I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.”

― Maya Angelou

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Dr. Martin-Harris is the Alice Gabrielle Twight Professor in the Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders and Director of the Swallowing Cross System Collaborative Laboratory at Northwestern University. Dr. Martin-Harris’ clinical and research interests include speech and swallowing impairment and treatment approaches for patients with head and neck cancer, neurologic and pulmonary diseases. She is the Past Chair of the Specialty Board for Board Certification in Swallowing and Swallowing Disorders, and Past-President of the Dysphagia Research Society. She is Associate Editor for the Dysphagia Journal, past Associate Editor for the Journal of Speech-Language-Hearing Research, and Editorial Board member for the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and the Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology. She is a recipient of the American Speech Language and Hearing Association’s (ASHA) Honors of the Association award, recipient of the 2016 Admiral Albert J. Baciocco Innovation Award – Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), Honorary Member of the MUSC Chapter of The National Academy of Inventors, and recipient of Honors from the South Carolina Speech-Language-Hearing Association (SCHA). She is the author and developer of the first standardized method for videofluoroscopic assessment of swallowing impairment (Modified Barium Swallowing Impairment Profile, MBSImP), translated to clinical instruction in 188 university graduate programs and clinical practices in the US, Canada and 27 additional countries. Her work is funded by the National Institutes on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), the Veteran’s Administration, and the Mark and Evelyn Trammell Foundation.