Speech-language pathologist Rich De Witt, who works at Rogue Valley Medical Center, is helping Phil Neimeyer recover from a serious brain injury suffered in a fall. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

Finding Their Voice

Phil Neimeyer might not be royalty but, like the main character of "The King's Speech," his life took a turn for the better after several frustrating speech-therapy sessions.

The 58-year-old Medford resident damaged his brain in a fall while visiting his brother in Michigan. Neimeyer was descending a staircase when he lost his footing and smacked his head on the floor.

At least that's what he assumed happened. He has no memory of the event. In fact, the next few months were fuzzy, he said.

"My wife told me that I just wasn't myself after my brain injury," Neimeyer said. "She said I always had a vacant look and that I was having trouble communicating and remembering simple things. But I didn't think that anything was wrong."

Neimeyer was as surprised as anyone when his doctors recommended he see a speech therapist to kick his mind back into gear.

Speech therapy? Isn't that for people who stutter?

"We rarely deal with stuttering anymore," said Hilary Evonuk, a speech-language pathologist who works at Rogue Valley Medical Center. "Stuttering accounts for only about 1 percent of our patients," and it is something that's handled early in life.

As "The King's Speech" collects awards and remains a front runner for several Academy Awards tonight, speech therapy has found life in popular culture.

The film tells the story of King George VI, who ascended to England's throne prior to World War II. The king suffered from a debilitating stutter that ruined his ability to speak publicly. He regained his voice with the help of a speech therapist, whose trade was just coming into its own at mid-century.

Evonuk saw the movie and found it was mostly accurate in its recounting of her occupation's early days.

"Though there was one scene where the therapist has the king's wife sit on his chest as he breathed," Evonuk said, laughing. "I've never heard of that. And we don't do it here."

Rich De Witt, speech-language pathologist at RVMC, said he and his colleagues deal mostly with injuries to the mouth and throat caused by disease, stroke and accidents.

"Many of the people we see have lost the ability to speak or swallow," De Witt said.

This form of rehabilitation can be grueling for patients, as they are put through numerous exercises to strengthen their neck muscles and vocal chords.

"Losing the ability to speak is so emotionally painful for patients," Evonuk said. "And every patient we get is unique, so we have to find what works best for each person."

Neimeyer's brain trauma left him unable to perform basic life tasks such as cooking and driving. De Witt and Evonuk knew they had to retrain his brain to work properly.

This involved giving him tasks to help him correctly interpret things we saw.

"I knew he liked rock 'n' roll music," De Witt said. "So I showed him a bunch of albums and got him slowly talking about music. And pretty soon he was recalling things he'd heard and enjoyed in the past."

Unlike the speech pathologist in "The King's Speech," Evonuk and De Witt do not perform their work in a vacuum. They are in constant contact with a patient's other doctors to track their recovery from beginning to end.

Among the other interesting patients De Witt and Evonuk have helped was an Oregon Shakespeare Festival singer who suffered vocal-chord damage due to an infection. They used a voice analyzer to help her regain her range.

"She was able to rejoin the OSF and was singing as well as before the infection," De Witt said.

Neimeyer's doubts about speech therapy following his injury are a distant memory.

"After my therapy, my grandson said to me, 'I'm glad you're back,' " he said.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-774-4471; or e-mail him at

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