Skip to main content

27 September 2023

Dual-Profession Dynamo Bringing Speech and Hearing to Cambodia’s Rural Communities

Sometimes in life you get to bend the rules and it can be the best thing ever. For Professor Chyrisse Heine it was when, as a student, she was expected to choose between speech therapy and audiology as a career path. She chose both.

“Most people choose one or the other, but I loved the overlap so I did a double degree. And I’ve been able to retain my skills in both these professions throughout my career and to combine them to help people,” says Chyrisse

Her career has also seen her blend the worlds of research, teaching and running a private practice. The professor, now based at Federation University in Victoria, has also served on the board of directors for Speech Pathology Australia.

For Chyrisse though, a particularly important career turning point came in the last decade when she felt she “wanted something different”.

She says: “At the time things were much the same for me workwise – the lecturing was consistent and I had been at the same place of employment [LaTrobe University] for nearly 30 years and I have a lovely private practice where things were going well. I was feeling like I wanted to be able to do something to help and to be a volunteer,” she says.

Though Chyrisse reached out across her networks in Australia, looking to put her professional skills to service, nothing turned up for volunteering linked to her fields. Then that “something different” did emerge when it came as a call from thousands of kilometres away, in rural Cambodia where resources and services for the hearing impaired and those in need of speech therapy are scant.

“I remember I was quite apprehensive to begin with. No one I asked was able to come with me on that first trip that was three weeks long and I remember having second thoughts because I didn’t speak the language and had never visited Cambodia before. Also, a few days before I was supposed to fly, I got a call from the organiser saying that the “small” group who were part of this workshop had grown to around 80 people.

“But I put my heart in my boots, got on that flight and off I went,” she says.

The experience was deeply affirming, she says. From that initial workshop she connected with other volunteer organisations and from those networks she ended up teaming up with the mission called Cambodia Vision. Her role was to bolster their vision services with services for the hearing and speech impaired. Since 2015 Chyrisse has been back every year to Cambodia apart from when Covid-19 lockdown restrictions halted global travel. She’s also been able to help Cambodia develop its own public speech pathology services.

“We go back to the same region two years in a row and I’ve been able to bring colleagues and students to join me on missions now.

“Even though these missions are not the answer and we know that that some of the assistance can be quite basic, we are making a difference and have to date been able to help 3000 people. It is deeply gratifying when we can help a 20-year-old, fitting him with a hearing device, and he gets to hear for the first time in his life. Or when we can help a child say ‘ma’ and ‘pa’ when they had no speech at all before; that’s special,” she says.

Her volunteer work in Cambodia – as well as her roots in South Africa, with its deep inequalities and difficult histories still to reckon with – hold lessons and insights that she insists on bringing into her lecture rooms.

“For me it’s first about recognising just what a privileged education I had at Wits. And then it’s about understanding the importance of cultural sensitivity and cultural diversity. There is also the importance of developing perspective of the global context and to build awareness that we need to improve services to the most impoverished communities in the world,” she says.

As an educator, Chyrisse says education is therefore not just about the qualifications one gets – but what you do with those qualifications.  She hopes to impart to her students the idea that a career is a journey that includes lifelong learning, active citizenship, being part of strengthening networks across disciplines and taking and making opportunities.

“It wasn’t easy for me to have done a double degree but it was just natural for me to do both; I trusted that that was the choice that was right for me,” she says.

Her first job arriving in Melbourne 35 year ago bridged the two disciplines for her. She says: “I was very lucky; a week after we came here I got a job at the university. We [she and her husband and first two of what would be four children] arrived with no jobs, no real stable accommodation and we didn’t know many people. My job was to teach and tutor in audiology to the speech pathology students, so that set me up for extending my knowledge and belonging to two professions.”

Chyrisse’s attitude has always been about being prepared for demanding workloads but also not taking them on as burdens either. Even as a student she remembers that university was fun – “even going to classes was actually fun”, she says. There was RAG that was a particular annual highlight, she says and it was also at Wits where she met her husband to be. But the simple routines of being on campus – walking across East and West campus to meet up with her brother, a biochemistry student most days to ride home together are her memories of the good days at Wits and she can bring to mind too the view of the slope of campus from The Great Hall steps.

As for her classes, they were a very small group of speech therapy and audiology students (only about 25 per year at the time) and this meant there was a strong sense of support and connection and an emphasis on mentoring and tutoring, she says.

That sense of bolstering the professions has stayed with her even as she looks to clocking up four decades in the two professions. Her focus remains to build capacity and help mould the next generation of speech pathologists and audiologists. It’s also to continue to raise awareness of how the professions she loves must add to giving people the right of “communication as fundamental human right”. No person with disabilities or impairment cannot be left behind, not is she Chyrisse can help it.