CCCs Help Launch an Out-of-This-World Advocate for Communication Health

Indira Bhatnagar Feustel, Medical Speech-Language Pathologist, CCC-SLP, wants you to know that communication matters — even in space.

Bearing in mind how integral communication is to the human experience, Indira Bhatnagar Feustel views the 28 years she has spent as a speech-language pathologist helping people communicate as an honor. 

Her career encompasses a range of experiences in a variety of settings and situations, all enriching her ability to provide care today. 

There was the time she helped the staff of a maximum-security prison understand that one inmate’s delayed communication was not an act of belligerence. There was also her membership on the speech-language pathologist team that helped former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords regain her ability to communicate after being seriously wounded in a shooting. And then there was her work with a patient in his 20’s with profound apraxia post-brain surgery who reached the point where he could finally tell his mother, “I love you, Mom.”

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (left) and Indira Bhatnagar Feustel (right).

“Being able to facilitate another person’s ability to communicate is extremely rewarding,” Indira says.

The daughter of a Czech mother and East Indian father who immigrated to the U.S. then Canada, Indira was born in Nashville, Tenn. Her family moved to France for some time before settling down in Ontario, Canada, where Indira spent her formative years playing every sport imaginable. By age four, according to her mother, Alena, Indira knew four languages. Years later, at McGill University, a linguistics course revealed her love for languages and sparked the passion that had been instilled in her from a young age.

“Before then,” she recalls, “I had never heard of speech-language pathology and all that the career entailed.”

Indira went on to graduate school at Purdue University, where she learned from some of the pioneering audiologists and speech-language pathologists. Macalyne Fristoe, co-creator of an important assessment tool used to diagnose children with speech disorders, the Goldman-Fristoe Test of Articulation, initially recruited Indira to attend Purdue’s Department of Audiology & Speech Services and was on her advisory committee. The importance of doing well and receiving her ASHA certification was not lost on Indira. 

“After all those hours in the library and sleepless nights studying for exams, I was finally an ASHA-certified speech-language pathologist,” Indira says. “It felt incredible to achieve my goal and to validate all of that hard work with this certification.” 

To this day, she still remembers and appreciates the support she received from her family and friends, as well as all the people in her professional and academic networks. “They inspired me to persevere to be the best I could be,” she says.

Earning her CCCs provided her the confidence and enhanced her ability to work with people and help improve their communication skills. Since then, she has worked across settings in the field — from a wide range of hospitals, care facilities and clinics — with primary focus with the adult neurogenic population.

“It is extremely rewarding helping someone improve their speech, language, voice, cognitive-communicative and/or swallowing skills and being there to support them, encourage them and advocate for them through their recovery process.”

Indira believes so strongly in the importance of communication and the work of speech-language pathologists that, in collaboration with ASHA, she arranged for her husband, NASA Astronaut Drew Feustel to carry some very special “cargo” when he commanded a nearly seven-month-long expedition to the International Space Station in 2018. It included a miniature version of ASHA’s Annie Award, and a T-shirt that read “Audiologists & Speech-Language Pathologists Rock!” It so happens that the Annie Award is named for Annie Glenn, the spouse of legendary astronaut John Glenn. After receiving successful therapy for her stuttering, Mrs. Glenn became a lifelong advocate for people who face communication challenges.  

Both Indira (@indirafeustel) and Drew (@astro_feustel) aim to highlight the importance of communication in every aspect of life for everyone — on Earth and in the great beyond. In honor of Better Hearing & Speech Month 2018, Drew tweeted a picture of himself wearing the “Rock!” T- shirt in space, and the reactions were widely positive. 

For their efforts, Indira and Drew were honored as “Stars of Communication” at ASHA’s 2018 Convention. Drew also presented ASHA with the miniature Annie Award he carried to space and back.

“I’m so proud to be a speech-language pathologist and to be part of the ASHA membership,” Indira says. “My CCCs helped me build the wonderful, amazing career I have today.”

Indira Bhatnagar Feustel’s headshot is courtesy of alexreadphotography.com.