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New therapy is a godsend for stroke victims, others

The simple act of swallowing is one that many of us take for granted.

But for those afflicted with dysphagia -- i.e., difficulty or discomfort in swallowing -- the simple act of ingesting a sip of water can prove a nearly insurmountable task.

"After a stroke, about half of all patients have significant swallowing problems," says Jeff Shoemaker, a self-employed Detroit Lakes speech language pathologist who has helped several area residents to recover their swallowing ability through the use of an innovative new therapy.

This therapy, known as Vital Stim, involves passing a small electrical current through external electrodes attached to the patient's anterior neck muscles. The current helps to stimulate the inactive, atrophied or weakened muscles in that area and restore a patient's natural swallowing ability.

Shoemaker, while administering this treatment for about an hour a day, five days a week, also helps the patient learn how to re-educate their swallowing muscles through rehabilitative therapy.

"Eating and drinking is a social thing," Shoemaker says. "It's quite amazing how one's life changes when you can't just sit down and have a cup of coffee or share a meal with your friends."

Past treatments have only produced limited success, he adds. They include swallowing exercises; diet modification, such as thickened liquids and pureed foods; and thermal-tactile stimulation, which brings a swallow response with ice. In severe cases, the insertion of a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG) tube was used, he said.

But Vital Stim has proved so effective that it has even allowed patients who have been using a PEG (otherwise known as feeding) tube for a long time to completely recover their swallowing ability.

"I had a patient at St. Mary's Nursing Center who had medical problems that diminished his ability to swallow," Shoemaker recalls. "He was on a feeding tube for 14 hours a day. I did Vital Stim (therapy) on him five days a week for three weeks, and he's been on an oral diet ever since. It was a wonderful experience to be able to change his life in that way."

One of Shoemaker's most recent successes was in working with Detroit Lakes resident Andy Francis, whose swallowing ability was severely impaired as a result of surgery to remove a rare neck tumor near his carotid artery, known as a vagal para-ganglioma. Though the surgery to remove the unusually large tumor was a success, it caused extensive nerve damage.

"I really felt this treatment strengthened the muscles a lot faster than they would have (been restored) on their own," Francis said earlier this week. "When I just did the tongue exercises (at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where the surgery was performed), I never really got tired from it."

In other words, he never really felt the muscles were being stimulated by the tongue exercises.

But after the first session of Vital Stim therapy, Francis says, "I noticed right away that my throat was tired."

"I've still got a lot of work to do," Francis says, "but it's coming along. I feel really good. I can tell it's slowly getting better."

"He will continue to get better as he gets more nerve recovery," Shoemaker says. "The natural process of healing will continue."

Shoemaker, who has full privileges in the physical therapy department at St. Mary's Regional Health Center, has enjoyed similar success with several other outpatients and nursing facility residents there.

"I have had two current residents receive the Vital Stim treatment, with excellent results," says Ann Jenson, RN, in a written testimonial. "One of our residents came to us requiring his nutrition through a feeding tube, with very little ability to swallow, and had difficulty even with his own saliva. Following treatments with the Vital Stim the resident is now enjoying his meals each day, orally.

"Another resident was experiencing multiple coughing spells whenever she took liquids and food. She would get so discouraged and tired from coughing that her appetite diminished and she did not enjoy eating; she was embarrassed with her coughing at the meal table.

"Following her treatments with Vital Stim, she has a huge smile on her face and enjoys her meals with little or no coughing. She actually looks forward to her mealtime...

"I am extremely excited about the treatments and look forward to having it available to assist other residents in the future," Jenson wrote in her testimonial.

For more information about Vital Stim and the other types of therapy available to improve swallowing ability, contact Jeff Shoemaker at 218-847-1090 or St. Mary's Regional Health Center at 847-5611. There is also a Web site that can be accessed online at

Francis benefit

A benefit to help Andy Francis with expenses associated with his surgery and recovery on Sunday, Oct. 29 (the date was inaccurately listed as Oct. 27 in an earlier story). The spaghetti dinner and silent auction, which is being hosted by members of his family, will take place at the Detroit Lakes American Legion, from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. The public is invited.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454