October 8, 2003
Canton woman looks forward to feasting, after therapy helps heal swallowing disorder
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
CANTON, Miss.—For months now, Angela Griffin has been fixating on a Thanksgiving dinner full of her favorites -- turkey and dressing, cranberry sauce, mustard greens, yams, potato salad, corn bread and German chocolate cake.
The feast will be her reward for a five-month long struggle to learn to eat again. In March, Griffin lost the ability to swallow after surgery to remove a brain tumor that was pressing on a cranial nerve.
“People should never take eating for granted,” said the 39-year-old mother of three. “I really don’t think people realize that swallowing is so important.”
Or so complex. Most people swallow some 600 times a day, never realizing that the act requires the intricate coordination of five nerves and 25 different muscles.
When something goes wrong with the process, it can cause dysphagia, a medical term for difficulty or discomfort when swallowing. When it happened to Griffin, she turned to speech pathologists at Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson to help her graduate from a feeding tube to the dinner table.
Treating dysphagia is a facet of speech therapy that many don’t know about, says Methodist speech pathologist Lisa Saxton. “The primary impression people have of speech pathologists is we all work in school systems and help kids with lisps,” she said.
But with people living longer, speech pathology’s role in dysphagia treatment is destined to grow, Saxton said. It’s estimated that one in 10 people over 50 has some type of swallowing disorder.
The most common cause of dysphagia in adults is stroke. It also can be related to multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, motor neuron disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, cancer, head and neck injuries, chronic heartburn, obstructions, throat infections and medical accidents, such as tearing of the throat lining.
When Griffin was pregnant with her now 11-month-old son Roosevelt, she began noticing balance problems, numbness in her face and hearing loss. But doctors didn’t discover she had a large brain tumor until four months after Roosevelt’s birth. She had surgery to remove the tumor on March 31, and woke up to find a very different visage in the mirror.
The tumor and surgery had affected nerves in her face, causing paralysis. Griffin couldn’t muster the movements to open her mouth, chew or move food safely down her esophagus. So she began receiving nourishment through a feeding tube.
“I had no idea that after surgery I wouldn’t be able to eat,” Griffin said. “It was torturous. It’s horrible watching everybody else eat when you can’t.”
Saxton said Griffin’s therapy concentrated on two objectives—working on muscles inside her mouth and throat to facilitate swallowing and working on outside facial muscles to improve her facial symmetry and speech.
One strategy involved stimulating muscles in the back of her mouth with frozen lemon glycerin swabs. “Frozen, so that they have sensory impact, and lemon for the taste,” explained Saxton. “When we first started, she couldn’t tolerate it more than four times. Now I do about 30 rounds.”
Griffin’s therapy also includes electrical stimulation to the right side of her face, and tongue exercises that she can perform at home. “We’re also working in conjunction with physical therapy to get her mouth open more,” Saxton said.
Griffin said when she arrived at Methodist Rehabilitation Center, “I went in as a fighter. I kept it in the back of my head—no pain, no gain. I knew I had to endure to be myself again. I had three children (Mickey, 18; Alexis, 11; and Roosevelt) I had to tend to.”
Her efforts were rewarded on Sept. 23, when Griffin finally passed a swallowing test on her third try. She got to eat applesauce that day, and Griffin said it never tasted sweeter.
Griffin’s whole family recently gathered to watch her savor her first real meal of baked chicken and dressing. And they’ll be by her side this Thanksgiving as she downs all her favorites “and whatever else my stomach will hold.”
“This whole ordeal has brought my family extremely close and strengthened us,” Griffin said.
Griffin credits her success to her faith in God, the staunch support of family and the dedication of her medical team. “My speech therapists have been so encouraging,” she said. “People can’t believe I’ve come such a long way in a short period of time.”
Griffin hopes to return to her job as a children’s therapist for the Canton School District. And when she does, she says she’ll have a greater understanding of the challenges faced by disabled students.
“I now have empathy for anyone with any kind of disability because I know what they are going through. When I think about all the times I took eating for granted … I was a picky eater before, but now I eat everything. I never leave anything on my plate.”