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Blugold alumni help patients find their voice through speech-language pathology

| Gary Johnson

Photo caption: Blugolds, from left, Terah Homolka, Katie Beck and Megan Viergutz all work in the speech pathology department at Marshfield Medical Center-Marshfield after receiving their bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UW-Eau Claire. (Submitted photo)

Three Blugolds are helping to give a voice to individuals with speech and language difficulties through their work at Marshfield Medical Center-Marshfield.

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire graduate Katie Beck is the team lead for the seven-member speech pathology department at the hospital, while Megan Viergutz is a speech-language pathologist. A third Blugold — Terah Homolka — is a travel speech-language pathologist presently helping with coverage at MMC.

All three received their bachelor’s degrees in communication sciences and disorders, and master’s degrees in speech-language pathology at UW-Eau Claire. They say their jobs as clinicians allow them to collaborate with other medical professionals from various departments to improve the lives of patients.

“I think what I enjoy the most and find the most rewarding is just the collaboration and teamwork put into really helping a patient achieve the best outcomes,” Beck says. “No one gets to where they are by themselves — it’s been wonderful to learn from other providers and professions to really deliver the best standard of care.”

Viergutz loves the variety of patients she sees daily that she is able to help.

“Each day brings something new and I’m not sure I’d be able to say that in a different profession,” Viergutz says.

Beck, Viergutz and Homolka all initially attended different universities before finding their home by transferring to UW-Eau Claire.

“When I graduated from high school, I thought I wanted a large university in a large area,” recalls Beck, who transferred to UW-Eau Claire in the spring of her freshman year. “I quickly found out that I was wrong. Transferring to UW-Eau Claire changed my life, and it is the best decision I have ever made.”

Like Beck, Homolka transferred from a larger university to UW-Eau Claire, a more compact campus that offers smaller class sizes.

“I was blown away on my first day at UWEC when my CSD professor took pictures of every student so she could learn our names,” Homolka recalls. “I immediately knew this was the place for me.”

Beck and Homolka received their bachelor’s degrees in 2016 and master’s degrees in 2018.

Viergutz transferred to UW-Eau Claire as a sophomore and discovered the CSD program. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communication sciences and disorders in 2018 and a master’s degree in speech-language pathology in 2020.

“I think the opportunities we were given as undergraduates and graduate students at UWEC really shaped me into who I am as a clinician,” Viergutz says. “The clinical experiences were wonderful and we had great mentors/supervisors providing us with the support we needed. The professors really engraved best clinical practice and patient-centered care into all of their courses and instruction.”

UW-Eau Claire’s undergraduate and graduate CSD program laid a solid foundation for the future speech-language pathologists to build on in their careers.

Beck says the programs’ coursework and clinical experiences helped her through her career in acute care, teaching her to think critically and incorporate evidence-based treatments and evaluations into her practice.

“While very stressful and time-consuming, my time spent as a student at UWEC were some of the best years of my life,” Beck says. “I can’t imagine having completed my degrees anywhere else, and I am thankful for the experiences I was given.”

Blugolds work in many medical rehabilitation facilities

In addition to Beck, Viergutz and Homolka, many other Blugolds serve critical roles in the inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation departments at medical institutions that include Mayo Clinic Health System-Eau Claire, Marshfield Clinic-Eau Claire, Mayo Clinic-Rochester, Aspirus and many others, says Dr. Tom Sather, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders.

“The UWEC CSD department graduates are integral members of the medical speech-language pathology teams throughout Wisconsin, the Midwest, as well as throughout the country,” Sather says.

Blugolds provide speech-language pathology services in neuro-intensive care units, cardiovascular critical care units, dedicated stroke and brain injury units and general medical/surgical departments, Sather says.

According to Sather, they have been involved in specialized programming that includes best-practice tracheostomy and ventilator, integration of innovative imaging techniques for assessment and treatment of swallowing difficulties, including use of rigid and flexible endoscopic evaluations, as well as implementation of outpatient group treatments based on principles of neuroplasticity for individuals with Parkinson’s, stroke, traumatic brain injury and aphasia.

UW-Eau Claire alumni also serve in leadership roles within their respective departments and institutions, and present their work within institution-based rounds, as well as at the local, state and national level, Sather says.

Sather says alumni return to campus or participate remotely to share their clinical expertise, advice and guidance with undergraduate and graduate students, and also serve as clinical placement or fellowship supervisors.

UW-Eau Claire ideal choice for grads

Beck would “absolutely recommend” UW-Eau Claire to anyone interested in pursuing a career in speech-language pathology. She praises the faculty for encouraging success for their students.

“I cannot say enough great things about the program, and about UWEC as a whole,” Beck says. “I wouldn’t be who I am today — both personally and professionally — without my experiences at UWEC.”

Homolka made strong connections with faculty and says it was an easy decision to pursue her master’s degree at UW-Eau Claire, despite being accepted at other universities.

“The CSD faculty really pushed us to consider the ‘bigger picture’ and target functional, meaningful goals unique to each person,” Homolka says. “I work as a travel SLP at this time, and UWEC prepared me to be flexible, which is critical for this position. I can adapt to new environments and populations thanks to the education I received.”

Homolka still quotes UW-Eau Claire faculty members almost daily in her job and she encourages students to consider enrolling in the CSD program at UW-Eau Claire.

“The faculty are excellent at keeping up with best teaching practices,” Homolka says. “Not only are they experts in their fields but they ensure they are teaching you in a way that results in meaningful learning.”

Viergutz says she will always recommend UW-Eau Claire’s CSD program to anyone who is interested in speech-language pathology.

“The coursework, clinical practice and instructors are wonderful,” Viergutz says. “I always felt supported throughout my schooling — they want to see you succeed and be the best that you can be. It’s great knowing you have people rooting for you.”