An Essentia Health patient’s journey to conquer dysphagia

Dean bicycling with grandson Peter. Submitted / Essentia Health

By Maureen Talarico
It was odd, thought Dean Grace of Duluth, to be diagnosed with mononucleosis at age 62.

“But I didn’t really worry too much about it, because I never got sick,” Dean says.

In the fall of 2015, more odd health problems began to occur. First, he began losing his voice. He thought it was laryngitis. Then he was diagnosed with pneumonia. Shortly after that, he had increasing trouble with swallowing. A couple of weeks later, he couldn’t swallow at all.

“I had a biopsy on Friday,” Dean says. “Monday morning, I learned the results and started chemotherapy the next day.”

He had an aggressive, stage 4 cancer.

The cancer paralyzed the muscles on the left side of his neck, including his vocal cord.

“I lost my voice and couldn’t swallow anything, not even saliva,” Dean says.

The medical term for difficulty swallowing is called dysphagia (dis-fah-juh). In order to get nutrition, Dean relied on tube feeding for the next 18 months. He lost 40 pounds, whittling his 165-pound body down to skin and bones. Following aggressive treatment and a stem cell transplant, Dean’s cancer was finally in remission, but its damaging effects had taken their toll.

“My doctor recommended I go to Essentia Health to receive care to help me gain back my function to swallow,” he says.

“Here at Essentia Health, we have 45 skilled speech therapists in the northern Minnesota and Wisconsin region and multiple ways to treat dysphagia,” says Amy Brown-Holappa, a speech language pathologist.

One treatment involves the use of electrical stimulation therapy to optimize the strength of the swallow. Another has patients practice swallowing exercises in a progressively more difficult order. Specially trained therapists can also work with patients to help restore movement and flexibility of the swallowing muscles.

“Dean participated in intensive therapy and was very dedicated to getting back to eating again,” Brown-Holappa says.

When Dean first began therapy, he worked to swallow a half inch of water from a straw. It took him the entire therapy session to complete.

“I would swallow some, then cough it up,” Dean says. “After several weeks of therapy, I was so excited to show my wife this new trick!”

Shortly after that, Dean attempted to try to eat real food for the first time in 15 months, having relied on a feeding tube because of his inability to swallow.

“They brought me in a bowl of tomato bisque. It took me 50 minutes to eat it, but I smiled the entire time,” he adds.

Following that success, he was able to take his wife to a Duluth restaurant last May, the first time in nearly two years.

Dean says cancer has changed his priorities and how he looks at life. A doctor of education who works with children with mental health disorders, he sums up his cancer battle as this.

“My dissertation was on resiliency, I did my field work kind of late, the cancer tested what I had learned.”

To learn more about Essentia’s intensive swallowing program or other therapy programs available, please call (218) 786-5366.