By Heather O.
This post isn’t going to be funny, or even relevant to a lot of you, so if you skip it today, I don’t mind. This post is about Joan Regnell, my professor, mentor, and friend. I just found out she passed away 2 years ago.
She was a voice professor at The George Washington University, and after one of the graduate teaching assistants dropped out of the program, she asked me to be her TA. I spent a large amount of time in her office during graduate school, and I learned a lot from her. She taught me everything I know about voice disorders, but she wasn’t only a great clinician. First and foremost, she was a teacher and a friend.
When I wasn’t in Joan Regnell’s office, I was doing therapy under my professors’ watchful eyes at The George Washington University Speech and Hearing clinic. It was a place where people could come to get speech and language therapy from supervised graduate students for a reduced cost. There were lots of patients who were unable to get services other places because they had plateaued, patients who didn’t meet requirements of sickness for their insurance payments, and lots of parents who were looking for some private therapy for their kids who liked the pricetag of a student clinician. And, of course, there were the transsexuals.
On a certain day of the week, if you came to the clinic after about 5pm, the lobby would be full of patients who were in various stages of the transition process. A few patients had undergone the complete surgery, and looked female. Others were in the process of undergoing electrolysis, or hormone treatments. Still others were at the beginning of the process, and would come dressed as men, use Joan Regnell’s office to change into their female attire, do their voice sessions dressed as women, and then change back again before they went home.
Learning about how to treat the “Patient in Transition” was part of our voice disorders education (and, ultimately there was even a question about it on my board exam). Joan was committed to providing these patients with voice therapy, no matter what. As far as I knew, our clinic was the only one in town that offered voice and communication therapy to people who wanted to change their gender. And when you stop and think about it, a person’s voice has a huge impact on how others view them, and, well, it’s kind of hard to pass as a woman if your voice still sounds like a man’s. Thus, for many of these patients, voice and communication therapy became their biggest hurdle in making a complete transition.
Joan made it very clear up front that if any of us were uncomfortable working with these patients, she didn’t want us around them. They deserved respect and discretion from their clinicians, and anybody who couldn’t give them that would not be treating them.
As she talked about it in class, I squirmed.
Could I handle working with this population? The Proclamation on the Family had just been announced, and in my heart, I knew that gender was something that was not to be messed with. Could I offer my services, such as they were?
I decided I could not.
One day, while I was working in Joan’s office, she was writing up the schedule for the Voice Clinic, and said, “Oh. There are only 5 transsexuals, and 6 clinicians. Somebody isn’t going to get to treat a TS. Well, maybe I could double somebody up.”
I saw my opportunity, a way to get out of an uncomfortable situation with grace. I casually said, “That’s okay. I don’t need to treat one. That’s fine.”
Joan was not fooled by my casual tone, and she looked directly at me. She said, “You really don’t want to treat a TS?”
She was not a woman to beat around the bush, and she was not a woman to be trifled with. I met her gaze honestly and said, “No. I don’t.”
She shrugged and said, “Okay”. And she continued working on the schedule while I sat at her computer, answering emails. We worked in silence for a moment, and then I blurted out, “I’m surprised you are so willing to work with them, Joan, given your own religion’s beliefs.”
Joan was a devout Catholic. She made no effort to hide her religious convictions, and, as far as I knew, lived by rigorous Catholic standards. She shrugged again and said, “I look at them like any of God’s children. They need help. I can help them. They need therapy, so I’m going to give it to them.”
And that was last we ever talked about it.
The next year, another Mormon student entered the program, and, just like everybody else, she passed through Joan Regnell’s class and clinic. She was looking at her assigned patients and said, “Hey, I didn’t get a transsexual. Everybody else did. Some even have two. I was really looking forward to working with that population.”
I sheepishly admitted that it was probably my fault that she didn’t have a TS assigned to her, that Joan, knowing she was Mormon, and knowing my preference the previous year, had assumed that any Mormon would automatically object to working with such a person. She had therefore graciously not put the student in an awkward position. The student was disappointed, but I was impressed. It was just like Joan to make it easier for somebody to live by her convictions without having to feel judged by others.
I always appreciated that Joan never belittled me for my choice, nor did she try to talk me out of it. Also, I never felt like she thought I had made the wrong decision, and she never held anything against me. She seemed to take other people’s life choices in stride with a matter-of-fact grace that was refreshing. I often wonder if I made the wrong choice that semester, if I should have worked with a transgendered patient, if I should have jumped at the opportunity to work with somebody who lived differently than I believed. It was a perfect opportunity to gain a better understanding of somebody else’s struggles, and how difficult it must be to live in a body you feel is the wrong gender, and I kinda blew it. I comfort myself with the thought that everybody deserves a committed clinician, and that my unease would have made me a pretty lousy therapist.
Joan died in October of 2006 from acute renal failure. I had no idea. I just found out today from a friend and previous classmate. I wish so much that I had known. I would have loved to have stood side by side at her funeral with the other students and patients she had influenced over the years, and thanked her in my heart for all she taught me about voice disorders, clinical practice, and love for her fellow human beings.
Rest in peace, my friend. You will be sorely missed.
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