A Staffordshire pensioner who was left unable to speak or swallow after a stroke was able to enjoy her Christmas dinner this year thanks to an innovative treatment.
Jean Dickinson could only watch last year as her family enjoyed their festive meal after a stroke left her having to be fed by tube.
But this year, she was able to join in the festivities after undergoing VitalStim Therapy, which means she can now eat meals and can speak much more clearly.
Daughter Andrea Piddock said she was delighted with the progress her mum had made and the success of the treatment had also led to an improvement in her mum’s mental health and mobility.
“We wrapped presents together and she really looked forward to Christmas this year,” she said. “It has given her her quality of life back.”
Jean, aged 84, had a stroke in June last year. Andrea, 54, found her collapsed on the kitchen floor at her home in Stoke-on-Trent.
She was rushed to the Royal Stoke University Hospital where it became clear that she had lost the use of her right side and could not swallow or speak – a condition called dysphagia.
Up until then Andrea said her mum had been fully mobile and independent with no major health complaints.
“It was very difficult because my mum had always been so independent,” she said. “She lived on her own. She always loved her food and had a good appetite. To suddenly find herself unable to swallow or eat meant her quality of life had gone.”
Jean was in Royal Stoke University Hospital for around six weeks before being moved to the Haywood Hospital for rehabilitation. She started to make progress, but then suffered a second stroke in September, which set her back and had a devastating effect on her mental wellbeing.
“She was crying all the time,” said Andrea. “She had started to become mobile, but the second stroke set her right back. It was soul-destroying for all of us.”
Andrea said her mum had been receiving speech therapy, but it had not had much effect. She was confined to a wheelchair and was fitted with a PEG feeding tube.
Eventually Jean was deemed well enough to return home in October. Andrea and her husband Steven, 57, later ended up moving in to take care of her.
Then Andrea remembered a colleague whose husband had undergone VitalStim Therapy after cancer treatment with good results.
Based just a few miles away in Stafford, she went along and met therapist Sumathi Sinnappan who explained how the treatment is based on electrical stimulation and treats swallowing disorders through muscle re-education.
“It was a slow process but we started with water and moved to more solid foods,” said Andrea.
“I was worried, but Sumathi explained everything so clearly and thoroughly that it put my mind at rest.
“Then one day mum asked for toast for breakfast. It was a real moment. I said you need to be careful but she ate nearly all the toast without coughing. She has now progressed to small meals and even has a Sunday dinner. She still has the PEG as she is not managing to eat enough yet. But we hope it will be removed at some point; that is the dream.”
Andrea said she noticed a big improvement in her mum’s mental health and mobility as her ability to eat food returned.
“We noticed an improvement straight away. She used to just burst into tears a lot, but she doesn’t do that now. She’s interested in things again and wants to do things,” she said.
“And she is enjoying her food. It’s such a simple thing, asking someone what they want to eat, but it’s a big thing as well.
“Her mobility has also started to improve. She can walk in the house with support, but without her wheelchair.
“It’s so devastating to be left in limbo, asking will I ever eat again or will I ever talk again? If you have not got hope you get depressed.
“This treatment has given her a quality of life back. And we were all able to enjoy Christmas dinner together this year.”
Miss Sinnappan said she was pleased to see the progress Jean had made. Jean first visited VitalStim in December last year suffering from dysphagia and was managing to eat solid food again by February.
“I am so pleased she was able to eat a Christmas dinner this year,” said Miss Sinnappan. “Without this treatment she wouldn’t have been able to. Eating would have put her at risk of food going into her lungs and that could have been fatal.”
VitalStim treatment is not available on the NHS, but is widely used in the US. Miss Sinnappan has been practising this treatment since 2005 abroad and set up VitalStim therapy in the UK in 2007. She is now based at the Business Innovation Centre in Beaconside, Stafford.