CATALDO, Idaho – When Sean Curran left the Navy, a career in speech-language pathology wasn’t on his radar.
“I planned on becoming either a journalist or an architect,” he recalled.
Curran’s goal changed abruptly when a car accident left him paralyzed. His sole focus became disproving doctors who predicted he would never walk again.
Today, Curran not only walks. He mountain bikes, skis and snowboards.
And it was his intense rehab work with therapists that inspired him to study speech-language pathology.
Curran started Tongue Twister Speech Therapy in North Idaho’s Silver Valley 16 years ago, and since then has treated hundreds of clients with problems related to swallowing, speech, breathing, articulation, language, attention, memory – “anything from the bellybutton on up,” he says.
During a recent interview, Curran discussed ways he makes therapy fun for clients, the best business advice he’s gotten, and what his profession has taught him about himself.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Curran: Southern California – the Mojave Desert.
S-R: What were your interests?
Curran: Bike riding, running and working.
S-R: What were you first jobs?
Curran: I went from pulling weeds to helping a mechanic rebuild engines, to working at a glider airport unloading passengers and pushing gliders back in line for their next flight.
S-R: Did you have a favorite class in high school?
Curran: A program called ROP that allowed students to visit Lockheed and go through steps as if they were working on the Space Shuttle.
S-R: What did you do after high school?
Curran: I initially went into the Navy and worked on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. After leaving the Navy, I enrolled in junior college. But I had an accident when I was 21. A car came at me in my lane, I swerved, and my car rolled over. I spent the next nine months learning to walk again.
S-R: And you changed career goals?
Curran: Yes. Early on during my rehab, I thought becoming a physical therapist was something I ought to look at. But at that juncture I wasn’t supposed to walk again, and I figured I couldn’t be a very effective physical therapist if I couldn’t move. I disliked my occupational therapist intensely, so that was out. I decided becoming a speech therapist would let me do things I enjoyed.
S-R: What speech-related problems did you have that required therapy?
Curran: Anytime you’re in an accident serious enough to fracture multiple bones, you can end up with traumatic brain injuries, as well as post-concussion syndrome. And that’s going to affect attention, memory. You may also see impulsive behaviors.
S-R: What training does your field require?
Curran: Typically you get a bachelor’s degree in speech-language pathology and audiology. I did that at Humboldt State in California, with a minor in psychology. Then I got my master’s at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
S-R: What direction did your career take after graduation?
Curran: I worked at the University of New Mexico Hospital for a while, then helped patients with acute mental illnesses. After that, I moved to Portland and worked in a nursing home.
S-R: What brought you to North Idaho?
Curran: The desire for a more rural lifestyle.
S-R: How many years before you started your own business here?
Curran: About six.
S-R: During your undergraduate and graduate programs, did you get any training about running a business?
Curran: Not really. I learned through trial and error.
S-R: What’s the best business advice you’ve gotten?
Curran: Keep track of receipts.
S-R: What’s the range of issues you treat?
Curran: Fifty percent of my clients have problems swallowing. About 25 percent are kids with language or articulation problems, autism or spectrum disorder. The rest are either strokes or cancer victims.
S-R: Why so many swallowing cases?
Curran: Swallowing requires as much of your brain as does getting up and walking across the room. Forty-six muscles are involved every time you chew and swallow – the same muscles you use to talk. Because swallowing is so important to life, a problem with it can lead to quality-of-life issues, aspiration risk, pneumonia. Even death.
S-R: What foods do people typically have trouble swallowing?
Curran: Depends on the problem, it might be only liquids, or only solids. They could have food go down and come back up.
S-R: How long do people wait before seeking help?
Curran: If their problem is related to a stroke, they might see me right away. Others may go four or five years before seeking help.
S-R: How far afield do you travel to treat patients?
Curran: I mostly stay in the Silver Valley, although I do occasionally go to St. Maries and Harrison. And I’ve had people come from as far as Spokane.
S-R: How long do treatments last?
Curran: Depending on diagnosis, it might take as few as five visits that involve exercises and posture modification. Stroke-related problems take longer.
S-R: How much do you charge?
Curran: From $75 to $125 an hour, based on who’s paying the bill – Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance.
S-R: Has the way you treat clients evolved?
Curran: Yes. The biggest change was when I switched from using preexisting materials for treatment to doing things that people enjoy. For instance, I could hand them a book and have them read, “John and Bob went to the store yesterday.” Or we can have fun – sing a song or recite a nursery rhyme. We might even go for a hike and talk about what we see in the woods.
S-R: Did skills learned in previous jobs - particularly your years in the Navy - transfer to this career?
Curran: Certainly, because everyone comes with their own history. If I treat a World War II vet, I can give them tasks that would make sense in the context of a military background. Likewise, if a patient was a mechanic, I can draw on my experience working on cars, and have him read instructions for repairing a carburetor. When you give clients something that interests them, you get much better results.
S-R: How about with children?
Curran: If I want a kid to say the letter “p,” I can say, “Let’s play a game, and every time it’s your turn, you say ‘Potato!’ ” Now we’re having fun instead of doing a task, and my goal becomes secondary to their enjoying the activity.
S-R: What’s your typical caseload?
Curran: Around 20 clients.
S-R: Is there a busiest time of year?
Curran: During what I call “stroke season,” which seems to go from October through February, when people who have been not very active start shoveling snow.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Curran: Being my own boss, and seeing significant improvement in people’s quality of life.
S-R: What do you like least?
Curran: The workload. A long week can be 70 hours.
S-R: What has this career taught you about yourself?
Curran: That I have much more patience than I ever would have expected.
S-R: What’s the career outlook for your profession?
Curran: Excellent. As the population ages, this medical field continues to improve.
S-R: What sort of person is best suited for this career?
Curran: Someone who is level-headed – you can’t lose your temper. And you have to be willing to constantly reassess and change your treatment based upon the client’s response.
S-R: What challenges lie ahead?
Curran: Medicare is always a big question – that, and insurance.
S-R: How many people in the Silver Valley have you helped?
Curran: Maybe 1,000.
S-R: When they see you on the street in Kellogg, what might they say?
Curran: They tell me, “I’m not choking anymore, and I’m still doing my exercises.”
S-R: Any favorite reactions?
Curran: (laugh) One client in her 80s with mild dementia had trouble swallowing. Thick liquids are easier for some people to swallow, so I brought her milk that had been thickened with cornstarch to the consistency of honey. She took one sip, looked at me with sorrowful eyes, and said, “That poor cow.”
This interview has been condensed. Correspondent Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at email@example.com