95-year-old Willis Cressman, of Dewitt, recently regained his ability to swallow and eat. Last year, due to his age, his muscles weakened and food inadvertently went into his lungs. So doctors put him on a feeding tube.
"There's no taste. You don't get to taste the food. And it's kind of a job to put it down that tube, spilling it."
A new device at Ingham Regional Medical Center is what helped turn Cressman's situation around. It's called VitalStim Therapy.
"It's just electrodes trying to target weakened muscles and get them re-trained to doing what they're supposed to do," explains Julianna Filice-Hanna, a Speech Pathologist at Ingham Regional.
She says Parkinsons, Multiple Sclerosis, and older age often result in dysphagia or the inability to swallow.
"Everything kind of lowers in placement so where your adam's apple is, it drops a couple of vertabrae. So it takes a little more effort to swallow."
If left untreated dysphagia can lead to aspiration pneumonia, dehydration, and starvation. While VitalStim isn't the only treatment available, it is the newest. And Filice-Hanna says it's the most effective in regaining muscle strength.
"I can't attach weights or anything like that so the only way to fix the swallow is to swallow."
And swallowing is exactly what the electrodes stimulate as a patient performs facial exercises in an effort to be able to consume again.
On average, VitalStim Therapy lasts 12 sessions. Insurance companies often pay for the therapy but not for the electrodes. The cost is roughly $200.