Dr. Derek Headley began his role as an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders this fall, but he was already well-acquainted with CEHS. Having earned his master’s degree in speech-language pathology from the College in 2001, Headley now works alongside many of his former professors as a fellow faculty member.
“I had such a great experience as a master’s student at WVU,” Headley said. “I just loved it. Several of the faculty members are still here, and it’s been a great experience to now work with them as colleagues.”
Headley’s position at CEHS provides him with the unique opportunity to split his time between teaching courses at the College and treating patients at J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital. At Ruby Memorial, Headley also supervises speech-language pathology graduate students completing four-week rotations.
The position, the first of its kind in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, is designed to allow the students to gain experience in medical settings earlier in their academic program.
“This helps the students to feel more comfortable in a medical setting, and also helps them to make the decision to go the medical route or the school-based route,” Headley said.
In addition to treating patients and supervising students, Headley works with the hospital’s nine speech pathologists to research swallowing disorders, which is Headley’s area of expertise.
“I am fascinated by being able to see the swallowing mechanism under x-ray and to make clinical decisions based on that x-ray,” Headley said. “Throughout my career, I’ve treated many patients with swallowing disorders and have had a lot of success in rehabilitating swallowing in those patients.”
For Headley, rehabilitating a patient’s swallowing is one of the most gratifying aspects of his work in the medical field.
“It’s an incredibly rewarding experience and to give somebody the ability to eat again is such a great quality of life indicator,” Headley said. “I’ve always enjoyed it.”
When Headley isn’t at Ruby Memorial Hospital, he’s at Allen Hall, where he teaches courses in dysphagia and voice disorders. When he works with students in both the classroom and in clinical settings, his goal is to teach them how to build relationships with patients.
“I want to make sure that with every student I supervise and train, I would feel comfortable with the students treating a member of my own family,” Headley said. “I really give them my all.”
When Headley was a master’s student at CEHS, some of his most valuable learning experiences came from hands-on work through his rotations at Ruby Memorial Hospital and his full-time externship in the brain injury unit at Health South Mountainview. He credits these opportunities with the successful career he’s built in clinical and academic settings.
“These experiences really shaped my career and opened up so many doors for me,” Headley said. “When I would go on interviews and they would see that I had an acute care hospital experience and a subacute care hospital experience, as well as all of the skill that I had acquired during those two placements, was invaluable.”
Now, Headley is able to provide his students with similar opportunities in the place where his own career began.
“It’s just such a nice homecoming, and I’m loving every minute of it,” Headley said.