Helping people to communicate by way of excellent rehabilitation services brings tremendous joy and satisfaction to Mbombela couple, Dirk and Ronel Lourens.
One of the most important skills in life is the ability to communicate your feelings and to hear and understand the feelings of others. Without the ability to communicate, you won’t be able to ask for the necessary things you need to survive. In an article about the importance of human speech, a professor, Philip Lieberman, sums it up: “We could say that we are, because we can talk”.
As human speech is regulated by a certain part of the brain, the ability to communicate might become impaired with any kind of brain injury that damages that part of the brain. Other causes of speech impediments are hearing loss, neurological disorders and physical impairments such as a cleft lip and palate.
Someone with a keen interest in all of this is Dirk, a speech and hearing therapist at StepMed, a multidisciplinary centre for neuro-rehabilitation in Mbombela. He and Ronel work alongside each other, focusing on their various specialities.
“A better way to describe the work that we do is to say that we are speech and communication pathologists. We have added nursing and the problems with mother-and-child bonding as extra services,” Dirk explains.
“Since we have started working at StepMed, we have focused on rehabilitation. A brain injury can happen to anyone, it doesn’t depend on age. From being born with a brain injury to car and motorcycle accidents, strokes, brain injury caused by anaesthetics during surgery, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or general dementia. It can happen to anyone at any stage of their life.
“Nowadays we focus more on the paediatric sphere and we’re connected to all the hospitals in Mbombela. Babies born with a brain injury or a condition such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome or spina bifida will be diagnosed early on and that helps the treatment in the long run. Our job is not only to focus on the patient, but you start the journey with the family by giving them all the information they will need.”
Ronel explains that she specialises in the field of feeding. “Breastfeeding is so important, and I help mothers with the latching and other key areas. Although it is not communication per se, this is an important part of mother/baby bonding. When a baby is born prematurely, they are taken away and put into an incubator and the bonding is a problem. We help to make sure that the babies are not overstimulated by the lights and so on, and try to minimise the stressors,” she says.
Dirk and Ronel met each other at the University of Stellenbosch where they were in the same class. She wanted to come back to the Lowveld and decided to do her hospital year in Lydenburg. Dirk, who grew up in Melkbosstrand, did his year of practice at Rob Ferreira Hospital. After he worked for a hearing aid company for a while, the couple opened their own speech therapy practice, but soon joined hands with Marlene Steyn and other therapists working at StepMed.
The vision of this rehabilitation centre; to assist all patients to reach their optimal function levels – physically and emotionally – to enable optimal independence and access to activities of daily living, is something that he and Ronel grasped as their own and they are working hard to make it happen every day.
A hearing evaluation is an important part of StepMed’s services
Dirk finds it difficult to accept that we live in an environment where we would like people who don’t fit into the mould, to be out of the way. At StepMed they really have a heart for anyone who is marginalised, people that society in general feels as if they don’t fit in anywhere and it would rather be better that they’re out of the way.
“We really like to acknowledge our patients as worthy human beings. Our approach is holistic and that is why we are working with other specialist areas like physiotherapy and occupational therapy at our centre. We also refer patients to various other professionals like
biokineticists, social workers, dieticians, orthotists, orthopaedic surgeons, paediatricians, maxillofacial surgeons, psychiatrists and ear, nose and throat specialists.
“Our aim at StepMed is to provide a rehabilitation service that will be on an international level. You don’t have to leave Mbombela to get the best rehabilitation service. I believe we are already able to compete with the best in the world, but we will keep on growing, adopting any new development in any of the areas that we are focusing on,” Dirk says.
To Ronel, establishing or that of re-establishing communication is the greatest joy of her work. “Sometimes the loved ones of somebody who has lost the ability to communicate, think that that person is completely unapproachable. When you bring the little key that unlocks the communication, even if it is only with a gesture or alternative way of communication like a piece of paper or an iPad, it opens a new world to that person.
“His or her loved ones regain access to that person and when that happens, it is incredibly special. Regardless of what someone has lost with a brain injury or something like a stroke or dementia, you have to acknowledge that person as a human being. When you can help them to make themselves more presentable, by improving their asymmetry, then you are busy working with God’s creation. That is something very dear to us.”
Dirk Lourens at StepMed on 013-741-4911 or [email protected]
Text: ALITA STEENKAMP
Photographer: BELINDA ERASMUS