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Wednesday, 8 May 2019

MY CLIENTS LOOK UP TO ME AS IF I'M JESUS!

 - Shekoni Florence (Lagos Speech Pathologist)


Shekoni Florence had a dream of going into the University of Ibadan to study a lucrative course that would later on be a money spinner for her in life. But God had a different plan for her. God it seemed had since her early years, prepared her for a different future without Shekoni taking cognizance of what was going on.

When she landed at the University of Ibadan to start her admission registration, she got the shock that changed her life. God was ready to take her on His journey and the journey was about to take off! 
Reluctantly she accepted but today, she is thankful and giving glory to God for the journey so far.

Shekoni Florence shares her life story and work as a Speech Pathologist to Paul Ukpabio and Biodun Adeyewa in this interview.

Can you tell us about your work?
The main thing I do is work with children who have challenges with speech and in other developmental areas though I work with adults too but more with children.

What age range?
From age 2 and we even we work with adult of any age who has challenge with speech. There also those who have stroke who are struggling to grasp back their speech and then also stutterers who naturally have challenges with communicating and expressing themselves easily. There is what is called challenges within like some have what we call prolongations, blockages during communication for example somebody wants to say my name and starts by blabbing my my my my name and in such a situation the listener may not have much time and patience to cope. The moment some people see such persons, they just say ‘okay, okay’ and leave. So with that, they lose so many opportunities and at the same time, it affects their social, psychological, emotional and that is why people with such disabilities tend to be anti-social and they withdraw to themselves.

What could have led you into such field of human endeavor?
My coming into this field was a divine arrangement. Actually I studied special education in the University of Ibadan, and over there we had so many units, you when you study medicine, there is the general surgeon aspect, you can specialize, the same applies at our department in the University of Ibadan. We had a unit audiology and speech pathology, where eventually I specialized. But before I entered University, I discovered that I have a passion for people that have challenges.

Why?
I don’t how it started. But my immediate junior brother had challenge with his speech back then while we were growing up. He started to stutter and in in a way we were helping him by slowing down our speech, breaking our words for him and today he is a successful marketer. Another scenario, there was a woman who had stroke: Though I was young in secondary school, so I was not aware that the woman had stroke. But out of the whole family circle, I was the one gave her maximum attention, cooking for her, talking to her and generally caring for her like bathing, dressing her up and plaiting her hair. I nursed her till she eventually died. I didn’t know then that the Lord was preparing me for something big then. When the woman eventually passed on, the whole family had a meeting and decided that the family needed to pray for me and they called me and prayed for me. Thirdly, I had a half-brother who had a child with cerebral palsy. It was a severe case.  At that time, I didn’t know what cerebral palsy meant. I just knew that the child had a challenge in movement. I just had this passion and worried why a beautiful girl like that could be struggling to eat, to move and to do simple things that we as children were doing easily. We were not living together, but I used to have the desire and urge to visit them and check on the girl.


So does that mean that all these incidents led you to study the special education in the university?
No, I didn’t want to study special education. I didn’t like it at all. I remember when I was staying with my sister at Oyo and I had admission issues with the university. So my sister suggested that I should go and study special education and I replied her ‘God forbid!’ I wondered why I should be working with people who could not hear or people who could not talk properly.  So I decided that such was not what I wanted to do with my life. When I did the university entrance examination popularly known as JAMB, I passed very well that year and I was sure of a good course. I had filled in for library science which was influenced by an elderly uncle who was a good librarian. I had figured it out that as a woman, such a course will give me time to be with my children and I would have opportunity to read many books. But eventually, university of Ibadan was offering only post graduate degree in Library science and was supposed to start the bachelor that particular year. Unfortunately for me, when I went to process my admission, I saw a big notice on the door of the department that they would not be able to start the degree course, that year any longer.  I broke down and cried. So the options for me were to look for other courses within the faculty of education and all the suggestions pointed to special education unit! I recalled my initial dislike for the course. Reluctantly I had to take it. But not long after we resumed, the passion and love for the course took over. I got to know that one can train a blind person to read and write, I actually saw a lecturer who was blind but has a PhD, and I was impressed. I saw the deaf who was a PhD holder and I surrendered. I was then ready to contribute my own quota to humanity. I had a guardian in the same university who assured me that if I was not comfortable with the course, he would assist me to change it at the 200 level. But at the end of that year, I went back to him and told him, I was no longer interested in changing the course. He was shocked! So he asked me to pick a paper and write a commitment that I was the one who refused to change the course. But I told take me by my word, and left.

Many years after, how have you fared?
The passion moved me forward. It has been wonderful. I have had several trainings outside the university walls as well. That exposed me to many situations of life. You can imagine a parent who has a child of 4 years who cannot communicate. There’s a chart for normal stages of speech and language development process for a child. So at 4 years when a child is supposed to communicate to his or parents about what happened in school maybe the meeting of a new friend or the arrival of a new class teacher, or a birthday party in school, but the child can’t talk or express in words properly, then there is a problem especially when such a child is just quiet and staring at you the parent endlessly or using gestures or sign language to communicate. For instance some years ago, my 4 year old child asked me to take him to an eatery and on the way, he told me why he loved to eat chicken, he said it is because he loves to keep the bones so he can give to our neighbours dog! So that was a 4 years old child, communicating his deep feelings to a parent. But it is not so easy for challenged children. So my work aside, I feel for such parents because I put myself in their shoes, the isolation and frustrations they go through. Meanwhile in some families, there are children of 10 years who can’t communicate or express themselves.

What are the causes?
When we talk of children with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, delayed speech or whatever, the major symptoms and the connecting factor in it all is that they have problem with speech. It is the underlying factor in all. Even the so called early disability whe you talk to them, for them to interpret what you have said to them, is a challenge. So it takes time and their processes defers from one to another. In some however, it is a neurological challenge, while some is mismanagement during child birth, like for the Down syndrome, it is the extra chromosomal factor. There is a particular number of chromosomes that is supposed to come from the father and mother. When it is more than needed, it leads to Down syndrome.

There was a case of a child that was being administered with sleeping pills at a day care and sooner the parents noticed that a once normal child, became abnormal
That is a case of mismanagement. Some children, it is the over dose of antibiotics that affects their hearing. We need even enlightenment for parents to know the kind of hospitals, day care centers and such like that they take their children to. Parents should be open and free to ask questions from care givers. A doctor is not God. Parents should ask questions from doctors on prescribed medications. During ante-natal period, mothers to be or mothers generally should be careful about the medications they use. For instance, a woman came in here and was crying. She said that her mother in law insists that she must be taking the local herbal medicines during pregnancy. These are real live issues. There was a time I went to Shagamu to access 24 children with different challenges. Out of this number, only 5 of them went through the normal ante-natal training and care. The remaining were given birth to in one herbal home or another, leading to damage to babies.

There was also a story of children who were being administered with local gin popularly known as ‘ogogoro’ at a day care center. So parents must watch where they take their children to. It is good that the Lagos Sate government is taking these matters seriously and now you need to register any Day care with the government before it can be opened to the general public. Nonetheless some people may still be practicing quackery somewhere. So my advice to parents is to always be alert about such Day care centers or hospital.

You are speech therapist. People like you work in hospitals. Why did you decide to set up your personal practice?
It is not all hospitals that have provision for a Speech Therapist. So I realized that early and started a practice whereby I consult for hospitals. Again if I have to work in a government hospital, we are not many, I cannot attend to the enormous volume of number of people needing my attention. There are so many children out there that we need to attend to. The government is actually doing its best, but more also needs to be done in terms of raising more professionals to meet the needs of challenged children.

Are you saying that there is a drought of personnel in the area of special education in Nigeria?
In fact if you go to the department where I graduated, you will find out that my set in the university had the largest number of students in the class! And then we were 60 in number. Now you will discover that after then, the number has been dwindling and dwindling. I heard not too long ago, that there was a year recently when students admitted were just 8 in number! That is because the moment the youths see the course ‘special education,’ they run! Right now we have been sensitizing the youth to let them know that there are so many things one can do with a university degree in ‘special education.’ 

Today’s youth are also challenged and are under pressure to achieve financial dependence early in life, so they consider courses that are lucrative. So let’s ask you, is special education as a course lucrative?
It’s could be lucrative but you know, working with special needs it takes time. In my case, I see God factor because I came into the profession by divine leading. It was not about how to make my pocket buoyant. At times you see some children, and your heart breaks. There are some challenge children that come here and defy all solutions. We need to be creative about treatment, and be patient to go the extra length. We start with evaluation, for our diagnostic test. The time of evaluation sometimes do not show the overall challenge but at least we will have an insight to the challenge the child may be having. As we continue work, we could discover more, to continually review our program to meet the need of that particular child.


We can see that you are passionate about your work, but when you met your husband, did he share this kind of passion with you?
We had about ten year’s courtship. In a way, my admission into the University of Ibadan was worked out by both of us. On this issue of special education, he has been a strong support for me. I think it is God that worked it out for me because I recalled that when I completed the National Youth Service, it was him who supported me into establishing my practice and even when I did not have money for some of the post training, he was the one that supported by providing the money. That has been his passionate way of support too. Also when I started having children, somehow, my children too imbibed the passion. Two of them are in the university presently but when they were much younger, they used to come home from school sometimes with a message, “haa mommy you need to coe to my school. There is a child there who cannot talk properly or there is a child there who cannot hear properly, or there is a child who always has saliva flowing down his or her lips and so on.”

From there the school talks to the parents and we intervene. And my teams have been wonderful too. So those were the early days. Now, some of my staff has been with me for over 14 and 15 years.

Through the years have you had times of discouragement or time that you thought of giving up?
Of course, there were times of great discouragement. But the truth is that at such times, just when I am almost about to give up, God sends something my way to uplift my spirit. Sometimes it could be a call from a parent praying for me for the success of the child or sometimes it could be reward for a job I did in past for which I have long forgotten about. At such times, even if I was lamenting inside or feeling bad, the encouragement will come and joy returns.

Discouragement will always be there especially in this job because as a parent, you cannot be totally happy if you have a challenged child. You want quick solution to the problem. And I immediately once I’m involved, I share the parents anxiety. For instance a child of 6 that cannot talk, after like 2 weeks for instance, we get the child to start mumbling some words but the parent may want the child to talk even almost immediately. Some parents think I’m Jesus, they expect that I’ll say be healed and their child will be healed. They want me to act like Jesus; they sometimes think that I am Jesus! Yes, I understand their pain and anxiety, but our process is not instant, it’s usually gradual. It’s only once in a while that a miracle of such happens that it is instant.  

In a situation where a man and woman had normal children and later had a challenged child, should they devote more time to the challenged child?
My advice to parents is that when there is a challenged child or special need child in the family, do not give them preferential treatment. Treat them like every other child. Treat them equally. See them as a normal child and instruct them like the others. With that they will know and be like the others. Again the parents should carry along the other siblings to know that they should treat the special need childlike themselves. Don’t tell the other children that such a child can’t wash plates or attend to chores at home. Children with special needs have potentials, all we need to give them is support to tap into, and they will be independent.

Do you refer cases to you?
We work with the HMOs, we are like a provider of a service to them. When they have children that have challenges like that, they refer them to us. In Nigeria, we have an association, the Speech Pathologists And Audiologist Association of Nigeria. I have senior colleagues who sell hearing aids for children who are in need of such. So we work in collaboration to help children with such needs in getting the best. I even get reference from abroad.  

Tell us one success story you’ve handled
There was this couple that came in, they already had three girls. The man said it was okay but the wife wanted another pregnancy to try for a boy so she can sit properly in her husband’s house like they say here. Unfortunately, the fourth child was truly a boy. Lo and behold a boy with a challenge. We worked on the boy and after 5 months the boy was okay and he is during very well now. For confidential reasons I won’t mention more.



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