Here is a new thing to be scared about: imagine waking up one day and inexplicably not be able to swallow. This was the case for Samantha Anderson, a mother of three from Australia. At the time, Anderson was 39 years old, enjoying life as a goldsmith while running her own jewelry gallery. But everything changed for the wife and mother when she woke up one day and could not swallow one bite of her breakfast. Since that first bite, she's endured a long, hellish battle just to feed herself that has lasted over two years. Anderson spoke in detail about her experiences in an essay she wrote the National Foundation for Swallowing Disorders:
I woke up one morning as usual, went downstairs, made myself some peanut butter toast and a cup of tea and sat down to eat breakfast. It was a Saturday. I took a bite and chewed as normal, but as I pushed the food to the back of my mouth to swallow, nothing happened. My throat remained relaxed, open. I squeezed my mouth tighter, pushed back harder, still nothing…until I felt it hit my airway. I was choking!
Over the next several months she tried hypnosis, anti-depressants, and counseling, but nothing helped her to swallow. During this time, eating solid food was completely out of the question, and Anderson was sustaining herself on a liquid diet, even though she still suffered from choking all the while.
I felt sure I would die; either slowly by starvation or quickly from choking. My days became solely about survival. Trying to find ways to trick my body to get the food down. I would set goals for myself – a whole tub of yoghurt, a glass of water and two whole strawberries to be consumed by the end of the day. I rarely met them. I was barely sleeping and was consumed by my hunger. I felt broken and desperate.
Hope finally came when an ENT doctor suggested that Anderson's swallowing problem was not psychological at all, but rather neurological. Anderson recalled having a rash on her ear several weeks before she stopped being able to swallow. She assumed it was a small patch of cold sores and put a cold sore cream on them. During that same time, Anderson was also suffering from painful headaches and some numbness on the left side of her face and throat. It was about a week after those symptoms subsided that problems with her swallowing started.
Turns out those were not harmless cold sores at all; it was a very severe case of Shingles that went undiagnosed for nine months. According to WebMD, Shingles is a painful skin rash, and someone with Shingles may experience burning, numbness, and itching as well as flu-like symptoms such as chills, stomach pains, and diarrhea. But Shingles can do more than that: in Anderson's case, it ended up traveling into Anderson's head through her ear canal and damaged four of Anderson's cranial nerves, which triggered her swallowing issue. At this point, there was nothing Anderson or her doctors could do but wait to see if the nerves would repair themselves.
At that point, Anderson had to have a feeding tube inserted, which helped her get the nourshiment she needed. But even after 18 months with the tube and trying to retrain herself to eat, she still struggles.
To read more about Samantha Anderson's experience, including her time with the feeding tube, check out her entire essay for the National Foundation for Swallowing Disorders..