Dysphagia a difficult problem to swallow

When a freak mowing accident in January 2021 left Bright’s Norm McIntyre with a broken neck and being fed by a tube, he wasn’t aware of the condition dysphagia that impacts around a million Australians every year.

old gentleman stood under some tree with 4 females from our Speech Pathology team at NHW
Norm McIntyre with our speech pathology team.

Norm’s fall down an embankment required a substantial rescue effort from the SES, fire services, and ambulance. He spent seven weeks in hospital, after being transferred by air ambulance to Royal Melbourne Hospital and returning to the Thomas Hogan Rehabilitation Centre at Northeast Health Wangaratta.

“Thank god for the SES and the ambulance, they were marvelous,” said Norm.

Norm’s injuries required part of his spine to be fused, which was accessed through the front of his neck and resulted in difficulty swallowing food and fluid. The medical term for difficulty swallowing is dysphagia.

The Speech Pathology team at NHW, worked closely with Norm, the Dietitians and Medical Team to manage his swallow rehabilitation and his nutrition. Norm was fed via a feeding tube in his nose while he underwent daily swallowing rehabilitation therapy with a speech pathologist over four weeks.

“I couldn’t eat. They put a feeding tube down my nose, which wasn’t much fun,” Norm said.

“They were able to feed me until I could get my swallowing function back.”

Almost a year later Norm encountered some new difficulties and was unable to swallow his saliva or eat or drink without coughing or feeling like things were stuck in his throat. A swallowing X-ray showed the impairment was caused by structural changes as a result of the spinal fusion and he was fed by a PEG tube in his stomach until the plates in his neck were surgically removed in August 2022.

“I was wondering if I was going to be able to eat again,” Norm said.

“They gave me exercises to strengthen my throat and help me swallow properly.”

“We swallow between 500 and 700 times a day,” NHW speech pathologist Sarah Coles said.

“Swallowing problems can occur at any stage of life, as the result of an injury as in Norm’s case, or for other medical reasons.”

“While swallowing difficulties impact Australians every day, little is known about dysphagia and the treatment options available to help improve people’s circumstances.”

Locally, speech pathologists at NHW and Gateway Health work with community members of all ages to assess, manage and rehabilitate swallowing difficulties.

“We encourage anyone who is experiencing difficulties swallowing to see their GP who can refer to speech pathology, or contact the Intake Advisor at NHW or Gateway Health to discuss a referral.”

After intensive swallowing rehabilitation post-surgery, Norm has been able to return to his regular diet and has been discharged from speech pathology services at NHW.

“The ongoing exercises has helped me strengthen my throat in a way that I can get food down, and it has helped me to enjoy food again,” he said.

Thursday 16 March is Swallowing Awareness Day and speech pathologists marked the day at NHW by raising awareness for inpatients and staff.