Brenda Capobres Villegas, MS, has spent more than 20 years helping patients find their voices — literally. A speech-language pathologist at Keck Medicine of USC and assistant professor of clinical otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, Capobres Villegas goes into work on her days off to ensure head and neck cancer patients receive the psychosocial support and care they need after surgery.

Capobres Villegas’ decades of dedication to patients hasn’t gone unnoticed. She recently was awarded the USC Choi Family Award for Excellence in Patient-Centered Care, with numerous nominations for the award submitted by her colleagues and former patients. The prestigious award honors physicians, residents, nurses and staff for their unwavering commitment to compassionate patient care.

“A critical key to achieving a successful outcome and a satisfied patient is loving care before, during and after the treatment,” said John S. Oghalai, MD, chair of the USC Tina and Rick Caruso Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery. “This is what Brenda provides. She meets with the patients before to help them come to terms with what the changes will be and what it will mean to their way of life.”

Education is a big part of Capobres Villegas’ focus. She teaches courses at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and California Speech-Language-Hearing Association, and provides training to the speech-language pathologists at Keck Hospital of USC and other therapists close to the patients’ homes to assist throughout rehabilitation. On her days off from work, she runs two support groups for patients and their families to learn about their disease, treatments and what to expect during recovery. After patients have surgery to remove their voice boxes, she teaches them how to speak with an electrolarynx or tracheoesophageal prosthesis and helps patients to improve their swallowing function.

“The focus on patients and their families is at the heart of the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery,” Capobres Villegas said. “My job is to teach patients to talk again, but it’s also more than identifying their medical needs: it’s also providing education and support to them and their families. We try to be as supportive as possible.”

Capobres Villegas is currently a student at the USC Rossier School of Education pursuing a Doctor of Education degree with a focus in organizational change and leadership. She anticipates graduating in August 2019.

— L. Alexis Young