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Swansea Bay NHS

Britain’s first deaf clinical psychologist hopes to inspire the next generation

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She has been an inspiration and one of her kind for almost 20 years. Now Britain’s first deaf clinical psychologist is hoping her journey can open the door to others.

Doctor Sara Rhys-Jones has led the way in breaking down barriers and changing perceptions and attitudes to get to where she is today at Swansea Bay University Health Board.

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She became Britain’s first deaf clinical psychologist in 2003 and remains the sole person qualified in that profession in Wales. This is something she hopes to change by telling her story.

“My journey into the profession was certainly daunting at first,” said Doctor Rhys-Jones.

“However, I am proud of this achievement and want to encourage more deaf people to take up psychology.

“There are now deaf clinical psychologists in the UK, but I would love to see another or more deaf psychologists in Wales by the time I think about retiring.

“I hope sharing my story will raise awareness that deaf people, with the right support, can become professionals in any field along with encouraging more deaf people to work in the healthcare profession.”

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It has not been a straight forward journey, but the experiences gained along the way have only strengthened her desire to progress.

Born profoundly deaf, Doctor Rhys-Jones was raised by a Welsh speaking family who had no experience of deafness.

Encouraged to read in order to develop lip-reading and speech skills at an early age, she had set her sights on becoming a clinical psychologist as a 16-year-old.

And whatever challenges she faced, the determination developed from an early age came to the fore.

“My parents instilled in me a strong belief not to let my deafness create barriers or prevent me from achieving my dreams,” she said.

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“As a teenager, I took a lot of joy working with young children, especially with the occasional deaf child I met during times when I volunteered at children’s festivals.

“It was at that point that knew I wanted to train as a psychologist to support deaf children, young people and adults.

“It really wasn’t easy at the start. I did a BA Hons in Applied Psychology at Cardiff University, but the department had no experience of supporting deaf students.

“I had a note-taker for some lectures and I read as much as possible to keep up with the course. My passion for the topic meant I had the drive to continue despite struggles at times due to being the only deaf student at the university at the time.”

A defining moment in her life came in the third year at university.

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A year’s work experience in Manchester at the John Denmark Unit – a specialist NHS mental health service for adult deaf people – introduced Doctor Rhys-Jones to deaf people and, significantly, British Sign Language (BSL).

“Despite being comfortable with the ‘hearing world’ and have wonderful hearing family and friends, there was something missing. During my time working in Manchester, I realised it was the absence of my Deaf identity,” she said.

“BSL fast became and continues to be my preferred communication for daily life and I finally felt complete.

“When I returned to Cardiff University, I arranged to have BSL interpreters for the rest of my course.

“For the first time at university, I had total access to what was happening at all times because with note-takers or trying to lip-read I had felt detached from the others.

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“My confidence really grew because I didn’t feel marginalised in society, as did my determination to be a clinical psychologist, to be trained to assess, diagnose and work with people with psychological difficulties and across all care settings.

“This field appealed to me the most because of the scope of clinical work and variety of care settings with the aim to reduce psychological distress and to enhance psychological well-being.”

Dr Sarah Rhys-Jones (Image: Swansea Bay NHS)

After graduating in Cardiff in 1996, doctor Rhys-Jones was awarded the best undergraduate dissertation project, which focused on the theory of mind in deaf children.

She was also given the opportunity of a PhD scholarship at the university, which centred on deaf identity and attitudes towards regional differences in BSL.

To add another feather to her cap, she completed a diploma in social sciences research methodologies.

That all led to her first post – assistant psychologist at the Deaf Child and Family Service (now known as National Deaf Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) in London where she met influential deaf and hearing professionals in the field of deafness and mental health.

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She would take up her first job as a qualified clinical psychologist there following a three-year clinical psychology course at Salomons, Canterbury Christ Church University, where she was the first deaf person to be accepted onto the course.

Five years later, she returned to Wales by joining the Cardiff Community Support Team for Adults with Learning Disabilities – a position and department that fell under the health board’s responsibilities in Swansea Bay.

After a decade in Cardiff, she moved further west to take up the same role in Bridgend, where she continues to work under the same health board.

Key to her work is the use of BSL interpreters during appointments, who have proved crucial in not only ensuring the best communication possible with patients, but also in terms of the service delivered.

“I would not be able to provide effective psychology service to service users in generic mental health services without excellent, compassionate and committed co-workers – the BSL interpreters I worked with during my training, first job on qualifying and continue to work with,” she said.

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“I use the term ‘co-workers’ to illustrate the incredible working relationships I developed with my team of BSL interpreters, which have and continue to tremendously benefit service users we work with.

“Interpreting in the formal way – to simply translate spoken English into BSL and vice versa – was quickly discovered to create barriers with hearing service users because the warmth and affinity was missing between the interpreter and service user to aid therapeutic work.

“The therapeutic aspect of my clinical work with hearing service users was discovered to be substantially more effective if the interpreter and I reflected on the session afterwards to plan the next session.

“For instance, the words used by the service user and the seating arrangement to help people with autism or psychosis.

“In my clinical work with hearing service users, it’s important for the interpreter to convey the order and choice of words along with tone of voice when it occurs in the assessment or session and to inform me afterwards.

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“Similarly, it is important to me that the interpreter does not ‘repair’ unclear words and meaning.

“My enriching experiences with service users – deaf and hearing – all intensified my desire and passion to complete the training and to continue working as a clinical psychologist to this day.”

Dr Sarah Rhys-Jones (Image: Swansea Bay NHS)

Sara continues to promote BSL outside of her work, having helped produce a free online deaf wellbeing course called ACTivate Your Life.

Delivered in BSL, that helps deaf people to learn how to look after themselves, keep their minds and bodies well and how to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Her work was highlighted by a popular deaf blog – Limping Chicken – who published the video and an accompanying article.

And it is that effort, commitment and desire to help that makes her such a popular and respected colleague.

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“Sara has indeed challenged stereotypes around individuals with a disability in her career path as a clinical psychologist,” said consultant clinical psychologist Clare Trudgeon, who is Sara’s line manager within the team.

“Training in clinical psychology is highly competitive and demanding, and practicing as a clinical psychologist is a challenging role.

“Working within a learning disability setting is a particularly challenging role due to the presenting needs of the client group and her need to work at all times though interpreters.

“Sara makes a difference on a daily basis to the lives of those who can be less visible in society but who are often in greatest need of psychological expertise to support them and their carers to live meaningful and successful lives.”

Sara added: “There were a number of hurdles and barriers I had to overcome, but the satisfaction of achieving my childhood ambition of helping others has made it all worthwhile.

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“I’ve proved that deaf clinicians can work with hearing clients using regular BSL interpreters, while also bringing a different insight and knowledge in clinical work with deaf service users.

“Now I hope to see more deaf clinicians qualify, and for Wales to have more than one deaf clinical psychologist and healthcare professionals.”

(Lead image: Swansea Bay NHS)

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Swansea Bay NHS

Maggie’s making a big difference for adults with learning disabilities

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For over a decade, Maggie Higgins has made a big difference to the lives of people with learning difficulties and hearing loss – contributing to work which can help reduce the risk of them developing dementia.

Her support has even helped one adult hear birds singing clearly once again.

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For others, it helps fulfil their potential and maximise their independence despite any difficulties they may face.

Now her work has been recognised through a major NHS award.

Maggie’s responsibilities within the speech and language service, which is managed by Swansea Bay and hosted in Cardiff and Vale, involves supporting adults with a learning disability, particularly hearing loss.

She has helped improve services around successful assessment, diagnosis and ongoing support for hearing loss, while a key part of her role includes overseeing the Positive Approaches to Supporting the Senses (PASS) group, which she set up with clinical psychologist Dr Sara Rhys-Jones.

PASS works closely with audiology experts to support patients, many of whom have had no concerns highlighted about their hearing, or had not been assisted in attending hearing tests or follow up appointments.

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Significantly, Maggie’s work has led to a sustained sevenfold increase in referrals to audiology services for people with a learning disability – lowering the likelihood of undiagnosed or misdiagnosed hearing losses, which can decrease the risk of developing dementia.

Maggie has helped develop innovative new innovative learning disability and sensory impairment awareness training for professionals, families and carers. (Image: Swansea Bay NHS)

Maggie said: “This is particularly encouraging following a Lancet Commission report in 2020 which identified that ‘unsupported hearing loss is the single greatest preventable risk factor for developing dementia.’

“People with a learning disability are at far greater risk of having undiagnosed or unsupported hearing loss and are known to be three times more likely to develop dementia than the general public.

“I raise awareness and get people seen and supported appropriately to reduce the risk where possible.

“Sensory loss is particularly prevalent and frequently undiagnosed and unsupported amongst people with a learning disability. The responses that might indicate someone has a problem hearing are very often mistaken for characteristics of their learning disability.

“It is essential that we understand what someone can see and hear so that we provide the best possible support. We cannot accurately estimate the impact of a person’s learning disability unless we are aware of what they can see and hear.”

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Now in her 20th year with the speech and language service, Maggie has spent the last 12 years focusing on the impact of sensory loss on people with learning disabilities.

It is an area which she is particularly passionate about.

She said: “When I started this work, the link between unsupported hearing loss and dementia was not known but that was not the primary reason that I started to work on it.

“It was the fact that people weren’t recognising the signs of sensory loss and people were not accessing assessments. The work has become even more important now that we understand there is a link.

“You can’t underestimate the difference it can make to the lives of people with previously undiagnosed issues who go on to have hearing aids fitted.

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“One lady left her hearing aid fitting appointment and burst into tears because she could hear the birds singing.

“It is terribly frustrating for individuals who, given the right support, could be involved to a much greater degree.

“When hearing aids are fitted or communication is adapted appropriately, the difference in people’s ability to engage with others and their environment can be overwhelming to see, irrespective of whether or not they use verbal communication.”

Maggie also created My Hearing Action Plan to help people with learning disabilities and their carers understand their hearing loss and the methods they can implement.

Following diagnosis of hearing loss, Maggie and her team support individuals, carers and staff to understand the impact of that person’s particular hearing loss on their communication and daily living.

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Working with Occupational Therapist Maura Shanahan, she developed innovative learning disability and sensory impairment awareness training for professionals, families and carers, which enables them to experience particular levels of hearing loss.

It has led to an increase in the use of sensory-supportive approaches that help people with learning disabilities improve their health, well-being and quality of life.

Her efforts over the past decade have recently gained recognition in the form of being named the outright winner of The NHS Employers Award at the 2022 UK Advancing Healthcare Awards.

The award category identifies an outstanding achievement by an apprentice, support worker or non-registered technician in an allied health professional or healthcare science service.

She added: “I was totally amazed to be shortlisted, let alone win the award in my category.

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“I have thoroughly enjoyed working in the speech and language service for 20 years, so it was a really lovely way to celebrate that landmark.

“Working with adults with a learning disability is an absolute privilege.”

(Lead image: Swansea Bay NHS)

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Morriston

New regional centre at Morriston Hospital to treat lung conditions given go-ahead

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photo of doctor holding x ray result

Plans for a new multi-million pound Adult Thoracic Surgical Centre for South Wales can go ahead at pace following a major boost from Welsh Government.

The new centre, to be based at Morriston Hospital, Swansea, will treat lung cancer patients and others who need surgery for a range of chest conditions.

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It will be able to operate on an increased number of patients, potentially upwards of 20% more, and will be the third largest centre in the UK.

Following extensive public consultation in 2018, it was agreed that the new centre will provide a single service for South Wales for residents living in the Swansea Bay; Hywel Dda, Cwm Taf Morgannwg; Aneurin Bevan, Powys and Cardiff and Vale Health Board areas. The centre is expected to be open within the next three to five years.

Patients will be treated as much as possible within their local health board area, only having to travel to the Morriston centre for pre-admission assessment and the surgery itself.

The endorsement of the proposal by the Minister for Health and Social Services, Eluned Morgan will enable the next key stage – the development of detailed plans – to now get underway.

Siân Harrop-Griffiths, Swansea Bay University Health Board’s Director of Strategy and project lead, said: “Developing this scheme and getting the agreement of all the clinicians and organisations across South Wales has been time consuming and complex.

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“But we are delighted that this endorsement by the Minister means we can now take this work forward at pace to provide better thoracic surgical services for everyone across South Wales.”

Malgorzata Kornaszewska, Consultant Thoracic Surgeon at Cardiff and Vale University Health Board and Clinical Lead for the South Wales Adult Thoracic Surgical Services Programme said: “The new centre will be a centre of excellence with access to modern technology, and will be able to offer a comprehensive, modern, timely and high standard service to our patients.

“It will also create an excellent opportunity for teaching, training and research. This is an exciting time for the thoracic teams and Welsh thoracic patients.”

The South Wales Adult Thoracic Surgery Centre will standardise the delivery of these services across South Wales, improving the long-term sustainability of the service.

Having the specialist service in one dedicated centre will improve equity of access and patients’ experiences, and most importantly provide better health outcomes.

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The single site thoracic surgery centre will be designed in line with best practice and the recommendations of various reviews and consultation processes.

As a centre of excellence, it will provide dedicated thoracic surgery to meet national standards, enabling sub-specialisation of surgeons, which in turn will enable a higher standard of complex surgical procedures to be performed.

All health boards in South Wales, led by Swansea Bay UHB, have worked together alongside the Welsh Ambulances Services Trust and community health councils to develop and agree a plan to develop this new unit at Morriston Hospital.

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Morriston

Carpenter still at work after nearly slicing off his fingers says thanks to Morriston Hospital

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A retired carpenter who almost sliced off his fingers is still crafting away in his workshop thanks to the skill of Morriston Hospital staff.

Colin Taylor was working on turning a piece of wood into a teapot-shaped plant potholder when his wood cutter slipped and went into his hand.

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But despite slicing two fingers through to the bone, he is not just busy in his garden workshop but has also rediscovered his artistic skills as a way of thanking hospital staff.

The 73-year-old said: “I had put the wood in a vice and started shaping it with an electric cutter. I had a new blade which was able to cut everything including metal.

“It had gone well, when I had an itch on my nose and went to scratch it. I took my hand off the cutter and it cut across the timber and across my hand.

“There was blood spurting up in the air. I knocked the cutter off immediately, and my wife called my daughter who is a good first aider. She came up and my fingers were hanging off. I’d damaged them all, but particularly my middle and index finger, and had severed two tendons.

“My daughter took me to Prince Charles Hospital in Merthyr but they contacted Morriston Hospital who told me to come down straight away.

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“From the moment I went in it must have been the best treatment in my life. The people were so nice and courteous. I was seen to first by a young lady who cleaned me up, and then the doctor came and took a look at it and said I’d have to have an operation.

“They injected my finger and the operation didn’t take too long, and I went home and my left hand was in a plaster for in six weeks. The surgeon fixed the tendons.

“It is not 100%, but it is what it is. I have got to get on with it. It’s a bit stiff in the morning and I can’t bend my middle or index finger like I used to.”

The grandfather of three has since produced a couple of paintings which he has presented to staff at Morriston Hospital by way of thanks.

He added: “I did some painting a long time ago. I always enjoyed painting and carpentry, although I know I’m no Picasso.

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“But the people in hospital were so good to me I just wanted to do something to thank them.

“I’m not surprised the NHS has such a good reputation with people like that working there.”

Specialist hand physiotherapist Iona Davies added: “Following surgery and initial assessment at Morriston Hospital, Mr Taylor was able to access our specialist hand therapy services virtually, at a time when local therapy services were constrained due to Covid.

“This eliminated the need for him to travel from Tredegar, where he lives and cares for his disabled wife.

“He has been dedicated to his rehabilitation and exercises, and as a consequence has been able to achieve his treatment goals, returning to woodwork and painting. The outcome following such an injury is dependent as much on patient’s motivation and commitment as it is on surgical skill and therapy input.

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“We were delighted to receive his gift.”

Lead image: Colin and daughter Heather with the painting of Morriston Hospital (Image: Swansea Bay NHS)

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