The month of May 2018 is Better Hearing & Speech Awareness Month! And since we have a speech therapy team here at High Hopes that is dedicated year-round to the ideals of better hearing and speech, we thought it might be a good idea for this month’s staff spotlight to put our Lead Speech Therapist Elizabeth Sestini center-stage.
Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Elizabeth and her husband Mark came to Tennessee almost exactly two years ago, in May of 2016. In July of that year, Elizabeth began working here at High Hopes. Stepping into the relatively novel position of lead therapist on the speech therapy team after a year and a half with us, Elizabeth continues to treat as both a speech and feeding therapist while taking on the additional responsibilities and duties of a lead.
Now settled in Nashville, Elizabeth and Mark live an on-the-go lifestyle, balancing work with community events and diverse interests and hobbies. Mark works in the finance department for a third-party logistics company based in Nashville, and it was that career choice that brought the couple to Tennessee in the first place.
Both Mark and Elizabeth love the life they’ve established here in Middle Tennessee. And their careers are a big part of that life. “To me, it looks like he does a lot of Excel spreadsheets,” Elizabeth jokes light-heartedly, “and Mark sometimes jokes, he’s like, ‘You have such a tough job. You go to work all day and just eat Cheeto puffs with all your patients.’” But, all joking aside, they both truly enjoy their careers and like to devote a lot of energy to their work.
“It’s coming up on two years,” Elizabeth says when asked how long she’s worked at High Hopes. “And it’s crazy!” she goes on. “Because there’ve been a lot of changes since I started!”
Coming into High Hopes, Elizabeth was the youngest therapist on the team, and the newest therapist by a long shot. Since then, she says, not only have they hired new therapists and added new positions to the clinic staff, but she has also watched the expansion unfold before her eyes. “That’s a lot of changes as well, but I think all changes for the better! We’re so excited about it.”
Elizabeth’s journey to High Hopes was a cross-country road. Her mother is a nurse practitioner, so Elizabeth always knew she was interested in the medical field, thanks to the exposure she received through her mother’s career growing up. “It’s pretty ironic,” she adds, grinning. “My mom is a labor and delivery nurse, and my maiden name is Storck.”
Elizabeth decided not to follow directly in her mother’s footsteps, choosing instead to go into speech pathology, which she and her mother agreed was an “up-and-coming field” when she entered college. She attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania (no affiliation with Indiana University) in her home state, where she completed her undergraduate degree in Speech Language Pathology and Audiology, with a minor in Special Education.
It was there, too, that she befriended her future husband through a peer mentor program in which they both participated, though it would be years down the road before they began dating. Upon graduation, Mark accepted his first job and moved out to Arizona, while Elizabeth migrated to Baltimore, Maryland to attend graduate school.
At Loyola University in Maryland (again, no affiliation to Loyola University in Chicago), Elizabeth completed her Master’s degree in Speech Language Pathology. While there, she and Mark kept in touch. “He ended up flying across the country,” she recalls in a wistful tone, and says they began dating while Elizabeth was finishing grad school.
After grad school, Elizabeth joined Mark in Arizona, where she completed her clinical fellowship. “We lived there for a year, which we loved. We lived in Scottsdale originally, and then Phoenix. We loved the Camelback Mountains, and the hikes… It was fun!” But when the opportunity arose for them both to accept jobs back in their home state of Pennsylvania, they jumped at the chance. “We felt like it was meant to be.”
In Pennsylvania, Elizabeth worked in an outpatient pediatric setting at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital, where she had completed an internship during her schooling. As fortune would have it, Elizabeth took on the position of one of the therapists she had originally shadowed during her internship, becoming the speech therapist on the feeding team there.
On the feeding team with her were a pediatrician, a dietician, and an occupational therapist. She is very grateful for all that her role there taught her. “That was a great continuum of care; we could all collaborate and work together. I learned so much from each discipline, and I feel like that experience has made me the feeding therapist that I am today.”
It was at Good Shepherd that she also earned a lot of her knowledge and experience with Augmentative and Alternative Communications (AAC) devices, which are devices that utilize touch-screen and eye-gaze technologies to enhance communication for children with speech and language delays. “It’s been a lot of hands-on,” she says of her experience there. She has been able to bring that experience and knowledge to High Hopes, along with new resources, to enrich our still-growing AAC program.
When the time came to move to Tennessee, Elizabeth was seeking a community and commitment to care similar to the one with which she was already familiar. At first, she struggled to find a place that she felt was a good fit. Until she discovered High Hopes.
One of the builders working on their home in Nashville happened to mention that she was adopting a child from China with a cleft lip and palate, and naturally she and Elizabeth began to talk speech therapy. “I was like, ‘Now where would you be taking your daughter for therapy, if she needs speech?’ And she said High Hopes.” Elizabeth had never heard of us before that moment. “So I came home from there and I googled High Hopes. I was like – what is this place about?”
It wasn’t long after that chance encounter that Elizabeth joined the staff in the High Hopes Pediatric Therapy Clinic. “It was a great fit from the beginning,” she gushes. “It was perfect, truly meant to be.”
Elizabeth admits that there are many challenging things about the job. She says the most difficult aspect of being a therapist, for her, is striking a good balance between her work life and her personal life.
“I feel like I could spend hours researching the latest evidence-based practice, or reaching out to resources… but I also need to have that boundary. Like, I come to work, but I also have a home life.” Nevertheless, Elizabeth strives to provide as much as she can to ensure that families have all that they need for the success of their child.
And seeing the progress of those children and their families is what makes it all worthwhile for this speech and feeding therapist. A family recently confided in her that their child had made more progress in four months at High Hopes than they had in more than a year at another facility. “I think just, hearing that and seeing that, and knowing that you’re making such a difference in these children’s lives, the families’ lives… It’s the most rewarding part of the job.”
A typical day for Elizabeth begins at 4:00 AM. Yes, you read that right: four in the morning. She and Mark like to get up at this ungodly hour so that they can begin their day with a workout three days a week. “We are a little insane,” she admits.
They both work a lot of hours, but she says they don’t mind putting in the tough schedules while they can. Right now, they are free to work as much as they like. “We both love our jobs and love our careers, so it’s something we want to do. But I would like a little slower-paced life down the road. Eventually.”
She prefers to arrive at work early, getting to High Hopes about 45 minutes before her first appointment in the morning. She likes to use that time to prepare for the day, to document, to get her schedule in order, and to review. Then from 8:15 until 12:45, on an average day, she and the other speech therapists treat in back-to-back 45-minute sessions.
During her 45-minute lunch break, Elizabeth likes to not only eat, but to document, rest, and prepare for the afternoon as well. Then at 1:30, appointments begin again, and continue until quitting time. “45 minutes makes a world of difference,” she says of her typical workday, which can be broken down into 45-minute increments of treatment sessions, breaks, and office work.
Elizabeth splits her time between the two disciplines of speech and feeding. “I would say right now half my caseload is feeding, half is speech. And I specifically work with a lot of our kiddos who use AAC.” But Elizabeth says she truly loves dividing her time evenly between the two types of therapy. She enjoys getting to work with families and children in different ways. “I wouldn’t give up one or the other. I love both of them.”
Outside of work, she and Mark find creative ways to fill their time. They enjoy the music scene, especially artists like Matt Nathanson and Jack Johnson, though bluegrass and country music are making a bid thanks to Nashville’s influence.
“Just last night, we went for a bike ride around the neighborhood. This past weekend, we had a block party for our neighborhood. I love working out, and I like all kinds of travel.” In fact, she and Mark have traveled to Europe twice in the last year, and are looking forward to trying out some new beaches here in the US in the near future.
Elizabeth says the joy of traveling lies in experiencing different cultures, and trying different foods. “There’s so much we still haven’t explored.” She goes on to reveal that she and Mark love trying new things on the homefront, too, including making their own kombucha! Kombucha is a term referring to any number of lightly fermented black and green teas, which have many health benefits. “It’s really not that involved,” she insists, and says it’s been really fun to experiment and incorporate a more natural lifestyle into their home life.
Although she does enjoy the occasional indulgence of a good old-fashioned chocolate chip cookie.
Overall, Elizabeth says the culture in Nashville and at High Hopes makes her feel very at home in Tennessee. “We love the life we’ve established here. We’ve made so many great connections, and the community’s been so supportive, and we truly are just really happy here.”
And a lot of that community is right here at High Hopes. “Our therapists here are so knowledgeable. It helps me continue to grow as a therapist. I feel like we can give the best care to our patients.” And she leans on that support going forward. “My coworkers are definitely the main reason why I’m here,” she declares with genuine feeling in her voice. “I think everyone just works really well together, and wants to support each other, both inside and outside the workplace.”
We are grateful to count Elizabeth as a leader on our team as we continue to grow and dig deeper roots in the Middle Tennessee community. We are certain her vivacity, experience, and relentless commitment to excellence will continue to be a driving force on our speech therapy team. She is a wonderful asset to High Hopes Development Center and to all the families that we serve together.