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New therapy offers promise to people who lost ability to swallow

New therapy offers promise to people who lost ability to swallow

It's something many of us take for granted, swallowing. The medical term for losing the ability to swallow is dysphagia.

Between five to eight percent of Americans over the age of 50 will develop it. A new therapy at Sacred Heart is showing some promise for some patients.

Debbie Barnes now spends many hours each day doing mouth exercises. A few months ago she couldn't swallow.

She couldn't have water or even basic meals.

Any liquid had to have the consistency of honey.

"I was having to use Thicken Up to make honey thick and my food was pureed," Debbie said. "It looked real pretty, looked like a pork chop, but it tasted like baby food."

They are still trying to figure out what happened, but food and liquids would get into her lungs and that led to sepsis, which nearly killed her. Her entire body was weak including the muscles that help her swallow.

She said, "It would go into my lungs. I would start choking. If it was liquid and you were sitting there I sprayed you."

After several hospital stays and episodes of aspiration pneumonia she was referred to Sacred Heart speech pathologist Jackie White to relearn how to swallow. She was doing daily exercises and making some progress, but not enough.

That's where vital stem comes in. It's a treatment that targets specific muscles and it lets you know when you are using them properly.

"What it does is activate your muscle groups," White said. "When you pair that with an exercise it stimulates that muscle to get stronger faster. It's a screen and it will show you a wave form and they can see there is where my swallowing needs to be, so they know whether that time was good or I need to work on it. "

Within weeks Debbie had built up enough strength to eat and drink again. She still does her exercises everywhere she goes because she will never take the act of swallowing for granted again.

She said, "The thought of not being able to eat or drink normal again, it was eye opening."