Page last updated at 09:27 GMT, Sunday, 5 April 2009 10:27 UK

Treatment helps woman eat again

Glenys Watkins and Sumathi Sinnappan with Vital Stim equipment
Glenys Watkins underwent 17 hour long Vital Stim sessions to cure her condition

Glenys Watkins was faced with never tasting food again after a fall at home in Dyserth, near Rhyl, left her unable to swallow.

But now the 64-year-old is tucking into her favourite chips after becoming one of the first in the UK to undergo an innovative treatment.

'Vital Stim' therapy using tiny electrical currents helped stimulate her swallow muscles.

Her consultant now wants to see the technique evaluated for the NHS.

"It's transformed my life, even saved my life," said Ms Watkins, who was a history and special needs teacher for 35 years.

"It's brought back my life again, I don't go out a lot but I can do now, if I want, go out for a meal, eat and drink in company, it's made family life so much better as well."

It could provide a vast cost saving in health care for patients with dysphagia, which could be many millions of pounds a year

Therapist, Sumathi Sinnappan

It was in 2006 when she fell down stairs at her home, sustaining serious head injuries.

She remained in a coma for a week, and when she finally regained consciousness it dawned on her that she was no longer able to swallow.

The head injuries had left her brain damaged, and unable to eat or drink.

Initially, doctors fitted her with a temporary feeding tube, but with no improvement in her swallowing condition, it was then recommended that she underwent surgery to have a permanent tube fitted directly into her stomach.

Electrical pulses

But help intervened in the form of speech and language therapist Sumathi Sinnappan.

She is one of the few people in the UK approved to provide the therapy which has been used in the United States successfully for the last decade to treat swallowing problems, or dysphagia, which it is the medical term for the condition.

The treatment uses small electrical pulses, transmitted through pads placed on the skin, to stimulate the swallowing muscles so that they relearn how to swallow.

After just two weeks of intensive treatment Ms Watkins was able to eat her favourite foods again including spaghetti Bolognese, chocolate cake and the odd chocolate biscuit after spending 11-and-a-half months being fed through a tube in her nose.

"Glenys, like lots of people with dysphagia, had a very poor quality of life, she was poorly motivated and depression can set in," said Ms Sinnappan.

"But now she's really perky and cracking jokes."

Glenys Watkins eating biscuits
Glenys says her only worry now is that she is eating too much

Currently, the therapy is only available privately, but the speech therapist and Ms Watkins's consultant believe it should now be considered as an NHS treatment.

"It could provide a vast cost saving in health care for patients with dysphagia, which could be many millions of pounds a year," argued Ms Sinnappan.

"It will cut the operating cost of fitting a feeding tube to their stomach, of providing the texture modified food for them and many are in nursing home care because of their lack of independence."


Consultant Robert Rafal, who is also Professor of Clinical Neuroscience and Neuropsychology at Bangor University, added: "As a consultant I would want Vital Stim therapy to be a treatment for patients with problems in swallowing due to a neurological difficulty where other treatments had failed.

"Further studies should be done to evaluate Vital Stim therapy's usefulness and if they bear out its effectiveness over time and in medical practice it should be available on the NHS."

A Health Commission Wales spokesperson said: "We cannot comment on individual cases. This is clearly an experimental treatment at this stage, and we will look at further research with interest."

In the meantime, Ms Watkins is just delighted to be able to taste her food once more: "I eat all sorts of food, I love chips, I must have them three times a week, but I need to lose a stone, even though we have the low fat ones, I was dead thin before."

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