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PhD Student Finds Her Voice in the Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences
Jenni Shafer, a PhD student in the Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences.

PhD student Jenni Shafer hopes her newly discovered research passions will lower barriers in an often-overlooked and under-researched issue facing adults.

In June of 2013, Jenni Shafer was kicked in the head by a horse. The four years since that accident have been arduous, yet rewarding: they have brought her where she is today, as a PhD student in the Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences.

Jenni has always had a passion for working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It is the reason she began volunteering at the North Carolina Therapeutic Riding Center in 2004. The facility provides hands-on therapy to children and adults with physical, emotional, and mental challenges through equine-assisted activities and therapies. In 2006, she became a PATH certified instructor.

Jenni said her experiences at the Center directly influenced her decision to apply to the Department of Allied Health Sciences’ Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling program in 2007.

“When I found the program I thought ‘wow, this great. This is perfect. I can work with people with disabilities,’” she said.

Jenni found herself on a different path, however, as she progressed throughout the program, working primarily with individuals with psychiatric illnesses such as eating disorders.

“It wasn’t what I originally started off wanting to do,” she said. “But it ended up being a great experience and another aspect of working with people with mental health issues, the psychiatric piece that I hadn’t had experience with before.”

She graduated from the program in 2009 after interning at the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders and then went on to work for a research organization where she conducted rater training for pharmaceutical trials.

But when her father died of a stroke in 2012, Jenni found herself needing more.

“I knew I wanted to change my path, but I didn’t know in what way,” she said.

Still, she remained at the North Carolina Therapeutic Riding Center, a hobby and a passion that brought her great fulfillment. It was also the place that brought that catalyst for change when, on June 4, 2013, she found herself caught between two agitated horses. Jenni was knocked down and kicked in the head. She underwent an emergency craniotomy at UNC Hospitals and woke up the next day in the ICU.

Immediately after the injury, she battled aphasia, an acquired language disorder that can affects one’s ability to express or understand language. She likens the disorder to the tipping and scattering of “word files” in one’s brain.

“You have all your language, it’s just kind of muddled,” she said.

Her aphasia resolved almost entirely just weeks after her injury, but she continued to combat apraxia of speech, a motor speech disorder that impacts the brain’s ability to plan and carry out speech production.

“I still have some lasting effects from that, which you can probably hear if you talk with me long enough,” Jenni said.

After her injury, she began researching the disorder that continued to hinder her speech. She was shocked by how little information was available on apraxia of speech in adults, as most of what her search yielded pertained to developmental apraxia of speech in children.

“That just wasn’t good enough for me” she said. So Jenni decided to take her recovery process into her own hands.

She started recording weekly videos of her talking about living with aphasia and apraxia, which she uploaded to YouTube. The videos served not only as an outlet to express how it felt physically, mentally, and emotionally, but they also provided tangible evidence as to how she was progressing. They were the catalyst for change she sought.

That change came in the form of her application to the Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences’ PhD program, a decision bolstered by her work with the Department of Allied Health Sciences’ Adam Jacks, PhD, and Katarina Haley, PhD.

She began the PhD program in August 2016. For the past year, she has been conducting research on what she finds to be an increasing number of barriers to accessing outpatient rehabilitation care for people who have had a stroke, and who therefore suffer from aphasia and apraxia.

“I hope that one day we do have enough data to say, ‘look, these therapy caps are arbitrary and need to be changed,’” she said.

Jenni said that while she was fortunate to have access to resources outside of therapy, she hopes her research demonstrates that not every patient is so lucky.

But she had something else on her side: the memory of her father, which she said gave her the strength to continue in her recovery.

“In a way, my recovery from my traumatic brain injury and speech and language disorder was akin to this grief journey that I was going through. Because I was hurt a few months after he died, I really hadn’t had that much time in between to recover mentally and emotionally from losing him.”

Her injury provided something to focus on, her recovery a long-term goal to accomplish.

“As I began to recover physically, I was able to recover emotionally from the grief of losing him,” she said.

Both her recovery and her research have reinforced the importance of one’s voice—in social settings, in marriage, and in motherhood. Jenni and her husband, Paul, a PhD student in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, welcomed their first daughter, Ellie, in May of 2016.

“The ability to communicate and read books to my daughter now that I have her is just invaluable to me. Having my literal voice back and being able to talk with her means more to me than anything.”

 -Rachel Kompare