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Stroke survivor grandmother eats for first time in two years following treatment

A Lincolnshire grandmother who thought she would never eat again after a stroke has told how a course of innovative treatment made it possible for her to enjoy her favourite foods once more.

Diana Tavner, 81, was diagnosed with dysphagia and left unable to swallow following a stroke in May, 2019. Her speech was also affected.

She had to be fed through a PEG feeding tube directly into her stomach and was only allowed small sips of thickened water due to the risk of choking. After a series of X-rays showed no improvement, she was told there was nothing else the NHS could do for her and she fell into depression at the thought of never being able to savour a meal again.

“I really felt as though the NHS had given up on me,” said Diana, a mother of four and grandmother of 11 from Sutton Bridge. “I had four X-rays and after the fourth they said there were no signs of improvement. They just said, ‘we won’t send for you anymore, let us know if you notice any improvement’. How was I supposed to know if it was improving if I couldn’t eat anything? I was so depressed when we went home that day, I really believed I would never eat normally again.”

Then Diana’s daughter spotted an article about VitalStim, a procedure which uses electrical stimulation to strengthen the muscles and had proved successful with other stroke survivors.

Diana booked a consultation and within weeks of completing the four-week course of treatment she was back on solid food and even able to enjoy a birthday meal out with husband Colin.

Now Diana is keen to spread the message about the treatment to help other stroke survivors.

“It really has given me a new lease of life, I can’t recommend it enough,” she said. “I want other stroke survivors to know that it’s out there, to give them hope.”

Diana was admitted to hospital after her stroke and it soon became clear she was no longer able to swallow. She was also only able to speak very softly and quietly. She had a PEG feeding tube fitted and given a prescription for thickened water.

“I knew I couldn’t swallow straight away; one of the worst things at that time was when they went round asking the other patients what they would like to eat and they just bypassed me because they knew I couldn’t eat,” she said.

“I had a PEG fitted and they let me go home with all the equipment to feed myself through the tube. But it used to take five and a half hours a day. I was so upset that they felt there was nothing else they could do.”

When she began her VitalStim treatment, Diana had no real confidence that it would work.

She started her treatments in July 2021, staying in Stafford, near to the VitalStim clinic, run by dysphagia consultant and speech and language therapist Sumathi Sinnappan, for a week’s worth of treatments at a time, returning home in between. And she noticed an improvement almost immediately.

“I had treatment daily and it was hard work,” she said. “But I noticed an improvement on the second day, which was the third treatment. I was able to eat a small amount or crushed ice and then tried baby food.

“I was very nervous swallowing at first, but gradually it got easier. Sumathi told me I would be eating again by Christmas, but I didn’t really believe it. I was amazed at how quickly I made progress.

“It was wonderful to be able to taste food again – the thickened water tasted horrible.

“Before my stroke I enjoyed a healthy lifestyle, eating out and being active. This came completely out of the blue and was a huge shock. But this gave me hope that I might get back to some normality.

“After the last treatment, Sumathi asked me what I would like to eat and I just couldn’t think of anything, I was so overwhelmed and hadn’t eaten anything properly for so long.

“Then on the way home I kept thinking about Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup, so we stopped to buy a can and I ate a quarter of it when I got home. It was so delicious, I really enjoyed it. It was so nice and from there we just started to get back to normal.”

Diana said it was great to be able to eat with her husband again – he had been eating alone for fear of upsetting her.

Then in November, for her birthday, the couple were able to enjoy a meal out. “We went to an Italian restaurant and I had risotto,” said Diana. “It was so wonderful to be able to order from the menu and enjoy the meal.”

Colin, 83, added: “It was wonderful to see her doing so well. It has been such a joy to see her cooking again and enjoying food. I had become the master of the microwave so it’s great that I am eating properly again too!”

Ms Sinnappan said: “When Diana came to me, she was not confident at all and had no hope because there had been no progress for so long. I screened her first to assess her suitability for treatment and we began with her chewing ice chips, then gradually progressed from there. I was reassessing daily to ensure we targeted the optimum muscle groups involved in the swallowing process.

“She started chewing and began to make rapid progress. Her mental health improved as well as did her speech.

“We slowly increased the amount of ice chips then she started having half a cup of tea; she tried soup and then baby food and yoghurt and slowly we tried cottage pie, cauliflower cheese and beef stew. Everything was pureed to a smooth texture, but she was delighted to actually taste these foods again.

“By the end of September, she was eating tomato and mozzarella pasta and porridge and other foods with more texture. It was wonderful to see her progress so quickly. I could see her confidence improving every day. Her speech has improved as well, her voice is now much stronger.

“People need to know that there is treatment out there. This lady believed she would never eat normally again, but now here she is going for meals out with her family. This treatment can change lives and my patients are so grateful.”

VitalStim treatment is not available on the NHS, but is widely used in the US. Sumathi has been practising the treatment since 2005 abroad and set up VitalStim therapy in the UK in 2007. She is now based at the Business Innovation Centre on the Staffordshire Technology Park in Beaconside, Stafford.

She can be contacted via email on [email protected] or by calling 01785 878278. For more information, visit www.vitalstim.co.uk