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Thanksgiving is a Tough Time for Those Unable to Eat

UC Davis physician, Dr. Peter Belafsky, plans to fast in solidarity with dysphagia patients.

A UC Davis physician is calling on colleagues who treat swallowing disorders to join him in a Thanksgiving fast as a way to raise awareness and show solidarity for patients who suffer from dysphagia, a condition that makes swallowing food difficult or impossible.

Peter Belafsky, a professor of otolaryngology and an expert in treating people with dysphagia, sent a message today to physicians around the country asking that they consider joining him in fasting on Thanksgiving.

“As a dedicated dysphagia clinician, I know this is a very difficult time of year for my patients,” wrote Belafsky, who also serves as director of the Voice and Swallowing Center at UC Davis in Sacramento. “For people who cannot eat, the pain and suffering that this time of year brings is immeasurable. The inability to eat and drink leaves those whom we care most about alone and isolated because they cannot commune with family and friends over a shared meal.”

Dysphagia is a medical condition that causes minor to profound swallowing problems, including the complete inability to eat or drink. While the exact prevalence of dysphagia is unknown, approximately 10 million Americans are evaluated each year with swallowing difficulties. A large and growing number of individuals in the United States are affected by swallowing problems, particularly older Americans and those who are neurologically impaired by stroke or disease. It is one of the most common causes of death in those who have suffered a stroke or been treated with radiation therapy for head, neck and esophageal cancers, as well as those with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Depending on the cause, swallowing disorders may be treated with medication, swallowing therapy or surgery. In severe cases, a feeding tube is required for patients who cannot swallow food or get enough nutrition to maintain good health.

For individuals suffering from dysphagia, holiday gatherings can be among the most difficult days of the year because the condition places an invisible barrier between friends and loved ones.

“Try to imagine what it’s like not to be able to eat or enjoy food, especially during a holiday like Thanksgiving,” said Ed Steger, a head and neck cancer survivor from Virgina who has struggled with severe dysphagia for more than ten years. “That shared experience of preparing traditional recipes and enjoying plates of food is lost upon those who cannot enjoy it.

“My family is very understanding and loving, but dysphagia takes a tremendous physical and emotional toll. At times it feels like you’re stuck outside looking through a porch window at a gathering you can’t really attend,” added Steger, who serves as president of the National Foundation of Swallowing Disorders.

Belafsky, along with his clinical team, has been able to restore varying levels of swallowing abilities in a number of dysphagia patients. Beyond the clinic, he has developed a unique medical device that manually controls the upper esophageal sphincter to allow an individual to swallow food and liquid. Belafsky also created a smart phone application to encourage swallow therapy exercises and he is exploring the use of suction devices to restore swallowing function.

Belafsky recognizes there is a lot of work to be done to address the range of dysphagia problems, which is one of the main reasons for his Thanksgiving fast.

“Too frequently our best efforts have failed,” said Belafsky in his message to colleagues. “For those of us who do battle in the clinic, in the operating room and in the lab, let us redouble our efforts to innovate, raise awareness and make a difference.”