One of the many roles a speech therapist can have is to treat people who are suffering with swallowing difficulties. Dysphagia is the medical term for swallowing difficulties and it is usually caused by other conditions; strokes, head injuries, dementia, cancer of the mouth etc. As with most conditions or illnesses, there are different levels of severity of dysphagia and some are easier to cope with than others. There are also different treatments available to those who have dysphagia and these include being referred to a speech and language therapist to learn new swallowing techniques, using a feeding tube that directly sends food to the oesophagus (via the nose or stomach) or using a thickening agent to change the consistency of liquids and foods to make them safer to consume.
The last of the treatments I mentioned is the one I am going to be focusing on in this post- the use of thickening agents.*I will talk about feeding tubes in another post*
I have had first hand experience of watching someone try to consume a drink which had thickening agent mixed with it and I can honestly say it was one of the most heart breaking scenes I have ever witnessed. My great-grandma (mentioned briefly in a previous post and referred to as NW [short for Nanawin]) suffered a major stroke in 2011 which left her unable to speak, paralysed down the right side of her whole body and unable to swallow. Incredibly at the age of 91 she fought for over 2 months and in this time overcame a LOT of challenges.
She had been told that in order to consume any liquids, she had to mix them with a thickening agent. Basically, it is a powder that you mix with your normal drink and it makes it a much thicker consistency so it is harder to swallow and therefore takes longer to travel, thus makes is less likely that the liquids will travel to your lungs. In principle this is a fantastic idea, but in reality it is not nice at all. One of my favourite drinks of all time is tea and I am pretty sure it is an inherited taste preference as it was one of NW’s favourites too! She loved it and so I thought it would be fantastic for her to be able to have one in hospital to cheer her up; make it seem less daunting and more like she was just at home, having a cup of tea with me as usual. WRONG. Once mixed with the thickening agent the content of the cup barely moved when you picked the cup up, it was stodgy like porridge and NOT appealing at all. I remember that day so vividly as it made me so sad knowing that my fabulous NW would never be able to have a cup of tea ever again. It’s a little thing that I (as do many others) take for granted, but when you can no longer do it, you truly value the importance of it. Luckily for my Nanawin, she didn’t have to suffer for too long. She’d spent the majority of her life being fit and healthy, being able to eat and drink whatever and whenever she wanted; it was just the last few months that she couldn’t.
I’m hoping that through this blog post I have highlighted the many dimensions of a speech therapists role and brought to light the importance of savouring the little things in life. Live life and enjoy it as much as possible, try to appreciate everything and never take things for granted 🙂