Budding speech pathologist chooses path in her grandmother's memory

June 25 - July 1, 2018

By Alyx VanNess


Morgan White was a senior in high school when she got the news.


“She kept it from us a long time,” White says. “It made her feel less than what she was.”


After nearly a year of wondering and worrying and what White calls a family intervention, her grandmother, Sandra Sanders, revealed she had been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).


A progressive neurodegenerative disease, ALS primarily affects the nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscle movement. Activities like chewing, walking, and talking are usually impacted, with progressive worsening and no known cure.


For White’s grandmother, it was her speech that went first.


“We always said she lost her speech first because she loved to cook,” White says. “She wanted to be able to cook for as long as possible and make people happy with her food.”


White shared a special closeness to her grandmother. She fondly remembers dividing her time between her parents and grandparents’ house, where she was dropped off every Friday night as a child. As she got older she chose to keep the sleepover tradition alive, inviting friends to spend the night to pave new trails in the family’s go-kart the next morning on her grandparents’ land.


When White learned of the diagnosis, she knew little about the disease. She immediately began researching ALS as a way to cope and prepare for what was ahead. Still, White found that what she read and what she experienced quickly diverged as her grandmother’s condition deteriorated.


“ALS is torture,” she says. “I could have prepared myself a million times and I wouldn’t have been prepared for what I saw.”


When her grandmother began attending speech therapy, White’s interest in the speech exercises her grandmother came home with piqued. She began looking into the role of a Speech-Language Pathologist in her grandmother’s treatment; it wasn’t long before she began considering it as a potential career.


Soon, she was doing a different kind of research. Although White was in her freshman year at Henderson State University for Dental Hygiene, she looked to switch degrees in an undergraduate program closer to home to care for her grandmother. She quickly found her place in the Communication Sciences and Disorders department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UA Little Rock). During her introductory speech class, she knew she made the right decision.


“I learned so much in one day. I haven’t cared about a class as much as I cared about that one. It felt so natural,” White says.


During her first semester at UA Little Rock, her grandmother passed.


She found solace by volunteering with The ALS Association. The non-profit had helped her family by providing medical supplies, resources, and emotional support.


“We couldn’t have gotten through it without their help,” says White. “I felt like I needed to give back in a small way, so I started volunteering.”


Soon she became a regular, helping at the support group meetings. This past April at the Arkansas Chapters’ Walk to Defeat ALS event, the non-profit surprised her with the Volunteer of the Year award for her service.


White hopes to continue working with the ALS population through her career, but she worries that the ALS Association in Little Rock won’t grow in time. There are other worries too.


“It’s not a very rewarding part of the profession because a lot of the profession is getting them better, and ALS is, unless they find a cure, it’s not. It's just going to slowly progress,” she says. “I have too many emotions and then to get too close and watch them pass away, I don’t know how long I could do that.”


Still, her focus remains on working with adults. She appreciates the flexibility available to Speech-Language Pathologists and is confident she can create a career that allows her to work with a variety of patients.


White will continue her pursuit of becoming a Speech-Language Pathologist this fall as she begins her first semester of graduate school at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). Although she applied for programs across the state, her dream was to follow her grandmother’s path by attending her alma mater.


“It meant something because she went there. It meant the most to me and I know it would to her to go to UAMS and follow in her footsteps.”


When White got the call, her first thought was to tell her grandmother the good news. Three years after her death, she is still who White turns to.


“I pick my moments when to be upset about it. A lot of my family is upset on the anniversary of her passing or on her birthday, or Mother’s Day. But it hit me, getting into grad school because I knew that normally she would be the first person I’d call. She was the first person I called for anything.”   


  • Morgan White
    Morgan White