WHEN TREATMENT FOR THROAT CANCER LEFT CORI GARLOCK WITH SLURRED SPEECH AND AN INABILITY TO SWALLOW, SHE DIDN’T GIVE UP HOPE. HER DETERMINATION TO REGAIN THESE TWO FUNCTIONS MANY PEOPLE TAKE FOR GRANTED LED HER TO WASHINGTON HEALTH SYSTEM—AND A BETTER QUALITY OF LIFE.
Last January, Cori, a 59-year-old retiree from Clarksville, entered WHS Washington Hospital at a low point in her life. Less than a year earlier, in May 2018, she had been diagnosed with advanced throat cancer. She underwent several extensive surgeries to remove the cancer—the operations took half of her tongue, among other tissue—and reconstruct portions of her throat. She also underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy. The surgeries and radiation left her speech garbled but intelligible to most of the people in her life. The most serious complication of the treatments was that they made swallowing impossible.
By the time Cori was admitted to WHS Washington Hospital for pneumonia, the sight of food made her fearful. Swallowing caused food or liquid, including saliva, to enter Cori’s airway, where it threatened to travel to her lungs. She had to spit it out before that happened.
“It was impossible to eat or drink, and I couldn’t swallow my own saliva,” Cori says. “The sight of food was scary because if I tried to swallow anything, I would aspirate.”
She had been relying on a feeding tube for nutrition for months. She was cancer-free—and still is—but fighting the disease had turned her life upside down.
During Cori’s hospital stay, WHS Speech-Language Pathologist Sheryl Ruffing, MS, CCC-SLP, evaluated her and recommended a modified barium swallow test, which allows a speech-language pathologist to assess a patient’s swallowing ability using real-time X-ray. Cori visited WHS Washington Hospital for the test. The result was startling.
“I saw the contrast dye almost go into Cori’s lungs before she coughed and spat it out,” says Scott Gilbert, MA, CCC-SLP, WHS Speech-Language Pathologist, who conducted the test. “Her inability to swallow was one of the worst cases I’ve ever seen.”
Beginning in early February, Cori visited Gilbert two to three times a week for swallowing therapy at WHS Outpatient Rehabilitation in the WHS Wilfred R. Cameron Wellness Center. Her treatment included swallowing exercises and VitalStim therapy.
“With VitalStim therapy, a device sends mild electrical currents through electrodes placed on the patient’s neck to the swallowing muscles,” Gilbert says. “That wakes up and strengthens those muscles, which, when used with exercises, can improve outcomes.”
SUCCESS IN SMALL BITES
Slowly but surely, therapy—and a series of endoscopies to stretch and open the esophagus, which Cori underwent at a hospital in Pittsburgh—helped restore her ability to swallow. As Gilbert cleared her to try more and more foods and liquids, she followed his advice by taking small bites and sips and used his strategies to minimize the risk of aspiration and increase safety and satisfaction with eating and drinking. By midsummer, practically nothing was off-limits, and Cori recently had her feeding tube successfully removed.
“I can enjoy pretty much anything I want now,” Cori says. “Scott has made my life so much better. Things don’t quite taste the same as they did before radiation, but my enjoyment of food increases every day. Something I don’t like the taste of this week may taste better the next.”
RELISHING LIFE AGAIN
Cori has come a long way, but she still has goals to achieve. In addition to no longer needing the feeding tube and enhancing her swallowing ability—her swallowing therapy with Gilbert continues—she wants to improve her speech. Gilbert is helping her with that, too.
“We’re using exercises and other techniques to strengthen Cori’s speech muscles and help her compensate for the lack of half of her tongue,” Gilbert says. “Our ultimate goal is for her to be
understandable to new listeners.”
In the meantime, Cori is enjoying some of her favorite things in life, including shopping, gardening and trips with her husband to their property in Virginia Beach. She is determined to reach her goals. “
Cori was determined to fix the problems she was experiencing,” Gilbert says. “That’s what led her to me.”
Quitting isn’t in Cori’s nature. “I’m a fighter,” she says. “I just keep on going.”