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Help for those learning to swallow again

Published: 8:06PM Thursday December 16, 2010 Source: ONE News

  • Joanne Gibbons (Source: ONE News)
    Joanne Gibbons - Source: ONE News

Joanne Gibbons lost the ability to swallow after surgery to remove a brain tumour took the function away from her.

Now, with the assistance of Dr Maggie Lee Huckerby, Gibbons is learning to do what most people take for granted - chew and swallow food.

"I remember saying as long as I could talk swallowing wasn't important," Gibbons said.

But it seems that Gibbons has changed her mind. She is now determined to join her family for Christmas dinner.

She told TVONE's Close Up that not being able to swallow means she misses out on social activities.

Huckerby agrees, saying it is vital for people to re-learn to swallow.

"At all ages of life a lot of our social skills are either learned as a child, refined as an adolescent or practiced as an adult, around food," she said.

Doctors warned Gibbons that she risked losing her ability to walk and talk after surgery, but it was her ability to swallow that was affected.

Huckerby said the problem is not uncommon - Gibbons is one of a number of people Huckerby is helping to re-learn the art.

"I can have a group of 100 people in the room and say 'How many of you know somebody that's had difficulty swallowing?' and almost always about 20% of the room will raise their hand," she said.

The basic human function requires 64 independent muscles, controlled by seven cranial nerves, to work together in 800 milliseconds. And if it doesn't work - the food gets trapped.

"If you don't have difficulty swallowing you don't realise how disruptive it is when you can't swallow," Huckerby said.

Huckerby has developed a breakthrough technique - helping those who never thought they would swallow food again.

"There are a set of patients who will never recover swallowing without intensive treatment and I think that this treatment will offer a lot of hope for those patients."

By watching what muscles are doing during swallowing on a screen, patients are able to teach their brain what works and what does not.

Gibbons is into her sixth week of intensive therapy.

"I usually only manage half an avocado... and that might take me nearly 3/4 of an hour to eat," she said.

Her progress is not perfect - but it is definitely dramatic.

"I have to check that everything is clear by breathing in and then I can tell whether my airway is clear," Gibbons said.

Huckerby said it is not an easy programme to be involved in.

"I always say that swallowing therapy is not for sissys."

But Christmas dinner with the family is keeping Gibbons motivated.

"I think I'll survive, I'll find something nice to eat. Even if I have to chew it and hawk it up after," she said.