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Swallowing Against the Odds: My Journey with Dysphagia

By Danny Voyes

My name is Danny, and to say that I’ve had a long and complicated history with dysphagia is an understatement! This is my story:

In December of 2007, I had a shunt revision for the shunt that is in my cervical spine. The surgery itself was a success, but a few days later I was choking on thin liquids. I had a Modified Barium Swallow (MBS) study done and they told me that my swallow was weakened a little bit and that I needed to thicken my liquids to a nectar consistency (now known as mildly thick). Not a single healthcare professional in the hospital told me or my mom that the condition was called dysphagia, nor did they tell me that I could go for swallow therapy to help improve my swallow. Seriously?!

Then, in 2014, I had the same shunt revision surgery that I had in 2007. When I woke up from surgery and went to the Recovery Room, I asked for some nectar-thick water because my mouth was completely dry. I took a sip of the water and immediately started coughing. Turns out that the surgery severely weakened my swallow (along with partially paralyzing my vocal cords in the opened position). Doctors had to insert a feeding tube in my stomach (and a tracheostomy, which is essentially a hole in my neck to assist with breathing). After spending two months in the hospital, I was transferred to a medical rehab facility, where I was first introduced to swallow therapy. The type of therapy that they did was called VitalStim. This type of therapy uses electrodes that attached to my throat muscles and sent small amounts of electrical currents to my muscles to basically “wake” them up. While I’m hooked up to these electrodes, I’m also doing some manual swallowing exercises (also vocal exercises to help get my voice back). After two months of not being able to speak, I got my voice back, but I was still having trouble swallowing. After about two and a half months, I was released from the rehab and a month after that, the tracheostomy tube was removed.

By the end of 2014, I did get my swallow back, but only for a short time. Needless to say, this had a major impact on my mental health. After I started counseling for my depression, I sought out help with strengthening my swallow. I found a local hospital that had an outpatient speech therapy program that provided VitalStim. It took three years, but by June 2017, my swallow was strong enough where I could have Mechanical Soft Solids (now known as Soft & Bite-Sized). I was ecstatic!

Unfortunately in 2018, almost exactly a year later, my swallow was severely weakened again due to another surgery. After two months in the hospital from this surgery, I went home. Unfortunately I was declining at home so I was admitted into a medical rehab facility. This facility had VitalStim therapy, one of the key factors for choosing that facility. Unfortunately, due to many complications and more surgeries while being there, my swallow didn’t get to become stronger. I spent about 6 months in the rehab facility, went back to the hospital for another surgery, and then finally was able to go home.

Jump to Spring of 2021, I started getting the ball rolling to go back to the outpatient speech therapy where I received treatment for my dysphagia a few years prior. As of December 2022, I am on a Puréed diet. In May 2023, I completed another Modified Barium Swallow Study. While I was hoping to be able to advance my diet to a Minced and Moist consistency, the speech pathologist recommended that I continue on a Puréed diet and continue with my swallow therapy. The current plan is to complete another swallow study later this summer, with the goal of eating more solid foods and wrapping up my swallow therapy. Will keep you posted on the outcome!