Patient and Family Choice Award

June 18, 2024

A patient wanted to eat a juicy Bonnaroo burger, but he had to learn to swallow food again after neck cancer. Julie Judkins-Giffin helped him get there.

“She taught me exercises that strengthened my throat muscles, which enabled me to eat again and gave me my life back.”

Judkins-Giffin is the 2024 Patient and Family Choice Award winner for Vanderbilt Tullahoma-Harton Hospital. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Throughout her 28 years as a medical speech-language pathologist at Vanderbilt Tullahoma-Harton Hospital, Julie Judkins-Giffin has helped hundreds of patients.

For many patients and their families, she has been a lifesaver — working with adults in both the hospital and clinic, teaching them how to speak and swallow again.

It wasn’t until recently that she was credited with literally saving the life of one of her patients, which garnered her the 2024 Patient and Family Choice Award for her hospital.

Judkins-Giffin was one of six employees chosen this year to receive a Patient and Family Choice Award.

Nominations are submitted by patients and families. The award honors employees from across Vanderbilt Health who act with compassion and excellence to provide an exceptional experience for patients and their families. This year, Vanderbilt’s five patient and family advisory councils bestowed awards to six individuals from Vanderbilt University Hospital, Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital, Vanderbilt Adult Ambulatory Clinics, Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital, and Vanderbilt Tullahoma-Harton Hospital.

The framed letter detailing the impact Judkins-Giffin, MS, CCC-SLP, BCS-S, had on one patient sits on her desk.

So, what transpired?

According to the nomination letter, after seven weeks of chemotherapy and a week of radiation therapy for treatment of metastatic squamous cell neck cancer, a patient came to Judkins-Giffin for assistance swallowing. By the third week of treatment, the patient stopped eating, lost 30 pounds, and required a feeding tube for survival.

“My life was very bleak, and I contemplated suicide to escape the melancholy of my life,” reads the patient’s nomination letter. “Then, I had my first appointment with Julie Judkins-Giffin, my swallowing therapist. She was such a blessing!

“She taught me exercises that strengthened my throat muscles, which enabled me to eat again and gave me my life back.”

During the announcement ceremony, the letter was read aloud. Judkins-Giffin said she was taken by surprise while hearing the words of her former patient.

“It’s amazing to be recognized for a job that you love,” she said. “I am so blessed to be able to provide the best care possible to my patients. Since it’s a smaller hospital, I have the best of both worlds — unique really because I work with inpatient and clinic patients too.

“It is such an honor to be nominated and then to win…It was all such a huge surprise,” said an astonished Judkins-Giffin. “We worked hard for him to reach his goal — he wanted to be able to eat a Bonnaroo burger at Jiffy Burger with a group from his church. None of them were going (to the restaurant) until he could.”

Jiffy Burger, a Manchester diner for more than 50 years, features the specialty burger with an onion ring, mayo, burger, cheese, egg, bacon, tomato and lettuce.

“So, every week we worked together, and he continued to improve.”

According to the nomination letter, Judkins-Giffin not only encouraged her patient and explained everything, but she also did the exercises with him.

“I know she helped bring me out of depression. I would look forward to our appointments and spending time with her. She was my favorite healer during my cancer journey,” the patient wrote.

“I have recovered completely and am now cancer free and eat anything I wish. Most of all, I am no longer depressed. I am so grateful for Julie being a candle in the darkness. She is an angel of caring.”