‘It’s an incredible thing, to help someone talk again’: WSLHD’s Professor Leanne Togher is helping people communicate after traumatic brain injury

In a 30-minute conversation with Professor Leanne Togher, Western Sydney Local Health District (WSLHD)’s speech pathologist and researcher, it is apparent that her work and legacy will change the lives of thousands across the globe.

While working at WSLHD, Leanne is also the Conjoint Professor of Allied Health with The University of Sydney. She has already published several programs which are helping people with traumatic brain injury not only speak again; but interact with those around them during their recovery journey – even when this means not relying on words.

Leanne’s clinical career started at Blacktown Hospital as a speech pathologist following her final student placement, and her journey into clinical research has maintained this focus on helping the people of western Sydney ever since.

“Speech pathology is a really unique combination of science and medicine,” Leanne said.

“You learn all about how you speak in terms of neuroanatomy and physiology, and you learn about how the brain works. But I am also really passionate about linguistics and language, and thinking about how we communicate, how we have social interactions, and what helps us to be good communicators.

“By the end of my first year at Blacktown Hospital, I knew I wasn’t going to be looking anywhere else. I knew I wanted to be a speech pathologist who worked with adults with communication disability.”

From early childhood speech development to trauma recovery, Leanne’s experience in speech pathology has exposed her to many patients and their unique health concerns.  

She is very passionate about the role of speech in not only communicating with family and friends or working, but in participating in society.

At such a vulnerable time, Allied Health professionals like Leanne serve as a beacon of hope for those reconnecting with their lives after a traumatic incident, such as a sudden loss of speech due to a brain injury from a car accident, a fall or a stroke.

“It’s a really rich caseload too – from stroke rehabilitation to Parkinson’s Disease or multiple sclerosis. I have helped inpatients and done meaningful work in the community. It’s an amazing thing to help someone talk again.

“And it’s not even just getting them back to work or getting their speech back. It’s about helping them understand what happened to them. We get to help people understand that we’ve seen this before, and give them reassurance, education, and strategies to move on with their lives. And that gives me enormous satisfaction.”

Leanne says one of her most vivid memories of clinical practice was helping a young woman reclaim her life after suffering a sudden stroke while standing in a queue at the bank.

“She was my age, and she just fell backwards and hit her head. She ended up losing all her speech and had what is called global aphasia. She’d only been married for three weeks, was in her 20s and had a fulltime job,” Leanne said.

“She made a fairly good physical recovery but because she had bled on the left side of her brain, she was unable to speak.

“I saw her and her husband every day for a year and by the end of that year, she got her sentences back and her speech was 95% recovered so that she was able to get back to work.

“I’ve treated hundreds of people, but I think she was the one that set me on my path. It was seeing the real-life impact of doing this clinical work in action.”

Leanne’s career has seen her become an international expert on traumatic brain injury, with her research and mentoring work seeing her contributing to the recent World Health Organisation package on interventions for Traumatic Brain Injury.

This package goes out to every health ministry in the world to be translated and implemented, including action plans for adaptation in lower and middle income countries.

“Most of the work that I’ve done has been with designing programs for families and for others to learn how to have good conversations, because conversations are at the heart of our lives. What we do all day, every day is have conversations.

“So if you lose the ability to have a conversation, which happens for 75% of people with traumatic brain injury, you lose the ability to socially connect with the person you’re talking to.”