Whatcom Cares: St. Joseph speech pathologist Lauri Burke offers care for patients who have difficulty swallowing

It might be difficult to imagine not being able to swallow food or drink — it’s such an everyday action that that most people take it for granted.

But people suffering neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis or from stroke or head injury often find themselves suffering from dysphagia, the inability to move food and liquid through their esophagus from their mouth to their stomach.

Lauri Burke, a speech and language pathologist at St. Joseph hospital, specializes in helping patients manage their difficulty or inability to swallow. Her coworkers appreciate the sensitivity and concern she shows for her patients as she helps them understand their situation.

“She serves a vital medical team role in determining how patients with neurological disorders and compromised swallowing (ability) can safely continue to eat,” said Jennifer Figgie, a physical therapist at St. Joseph. “She is a determined patient advocate in wrestling with the issues of quality of life vs. safety and in teaching family members how to assist their loved ones.”

Burke said a major part of her job is helping patients and their families cope with the emotional issues that surround dysphagia. Many of them grieve for the loss of their independence, and are frightened at the possibility that they could choke to death or aspirate food and contract a deadly infection.

“It’s hard sometimes, people are feeling a great deal of loss,” Burke said. “Your whole life changes in the blink of an eye. It can be pretty tough, but there are good days. There are days when I’m pretty teary, having discussions with a patient’s family. (But) there are success stories too. It’s a great place to work and I love making a difference.”

That compassion and commitment is what makes Burke so good at what she does, said Susan Brownrigg, rehabilitation services clinical coordinator at St. Joseph.

“It’s a big group of patients, mostly elderly,” Brownrigg said, adding that it’s not an issue that gets a whole lot of attention.

Brownrigg said Burke works with her patients on planning a diet, taking into account their wishes, but also remaining keenly aware of the patient’s ability. Burke must consider whether a solid food diet is realistic, whether the patient’s food should be blended into a shake-like consistency, or whether feeding must be accomplished intravenously.

“She takes into account the strong social need to be able to eat, to sit at the table with another person and share a meal,” Brownrigg said. “These patients are fragile and sick or they’ve had a stroke and it’s a sudden change for them and their family. Laurie does a fabulous job explaining this to the family.”

She said Burke interacts with a broad range of people in the hospital, from patients and their family members to the nurses, doctors and other staff members who administer to the patient. She also supervises students and mentors new graduates.

“She’s got years of experience. She’s developed great insight and great teaching skills,” Brownrigg said. “She’s a great team player and she’s very compassionate toward her patients, particularly the very ill. She’s got a very tender way about her. (But) she’s like a dog with a bone sometimes when she wants something for her patients.”

Burke, who is from South Dakota, moved to Bellingham to do graduate work at Western Washington University. She’s married with two daughters and has worked the local PeaceHealth system for some 17 years in various jobs, including as a nurse and in the rehabilitation unit.

“We see a wide range of patients. I find it fascinating,” Burke said. “We try to work with their quality of life, what’s important to them. We deal with that quite often as the population gets old, we see a lot of people in their 90s. People don’t always talk about death. It’s a difficult decision.”