Helm-Estabrooks honored for lifetime achievements

Nancy Helm-Estabrooks, professor emerita of communication disorders at Western Carolina University, has been honored for her lifetime achievements in the field of communication sciences and disorders with a major national award from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation.

Helm-Estabrooks was presented the 2012 Frank R. Kleffner Lifetime Clinical Career Award at the annual meeting of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, held in Atlanta in mid-November. The award recognizes Helm-Estabrooks’ work as a clinician and the influence her treatment methods, publications and standardized tests have had on the assessment and treatment of adults with acquired neurologic communication disorders, and aphasia in particular.

Helm-Estabrooks joined the WCU faculty as an adjunct professor in May 2009 and soon after was named the university’s first Catherine Brewer Smith Distinguished Professor of Communication Disorders. Prior to coming to WCU, she worked as a research professor in the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and as a clinical investigator for 32 years at the world-renowned Harold Goodglass Aphasia Research Center at the Boston University School of Medicine.

“To receive the Kleffner Award is quite an accomplishment for Nancy,” said Bill Ogletree, head of WCU’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. “Only one such award is given annually in a profession of more than 150,000 people. Nancy’s career achievements in the service of adults with communication impairments are indeed deserving of this honor, and WCU is lucky to claim her among its faculty.”

Helm-Estabrooks’ work with individuals who have aphasia, a language disorder that often results from a brain injury caused by a stroke, traumatic brain injury or neurological diseases, gained considerable attention from the national media in the fall of 2011 when ABC News reported on Helm-Estabrooks’ involvement in the case of Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords. Giffords, then a congresswoman from Arizona, suffered a bullet wound to the head in January 2011 when a lone gunman opened fire as she met with constituents at a Tucson supermarket. Helm-Estabrooks began overseeing Giffords’ language therapy program in July 2011 and continued in that role until August of this year, when Giffords and her husband, space shuttle astronaut Mark Kelly, moved from Houston, Texas, where they had been living as Giffords underwent rehabilitation, to Giffords’ hometown of Tucson.

Coincidentally, Giffords and Kelly attended the meeting in Atlanta where Helm-Estabrooks received her award. The couple was on hand to accept the Annie Glenn Award, which is named in honor of Annie Glenn, a nationally recognized advocate for individuals with communication disorders and the wife of John Glenn, a former astronaut and U.S. senator.

“I got to visit with Gabby and Mark backstage at the awards ceremony and was thrilled to shake hands with John Glenn, one of my longtime heroes,” Helm-Estabrooks said. “When Gabby visited Asheville for two weeks of intensive treatment this past summer, we worked on her acceptance speech, which she delivered at the honors ceremony with no notes.”

Although Helm-Estabrooks is no longer overseeing Giffords’ therapy program, she expects to travel to Tucson in March to observe Giffords’ current therapy program. “It well might be that Gabby will return to Asheville next summer for another two weeks of intensive therapy with me and Marjorie Nicholas, a colleague of mine from Boston,” Helm-Estabrooks said.

In the meantime, Helm-Estabrooks continues her active participation with the Asheville Aphasia Group and her interaction with WCU’s department through presentations and lectures. The third edition of her highly regarded text, “Manual of Aphasia and Aphasia Therapy,” will be published in 2013.

For more information about WCU’s communication sciences and disorders program, contact Ogletree at 828-227-3379 or ogletree@wcu.edu.

Nancy Helm-Estabrooks receives the Kleffner Award from Jon F. Miller, president of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation.