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Innovative therapy helps
toddler swallow trouble-free

Addison Ereth can swallow trouble-free thanks to VitalStim.
With help from Sanford Health Speech Pathologist Tracey Lockrem, right, and an innovative treatment called VitalStim, Addison Ereth has been able to overcome swallowing troubles that once hampered her ability to eat.
  Eating has become a completely different experience for three-year-old Addison Ereth and her parents, Shawnda and Dana. “It’s no longer scary,” said her mother, Shawnda Ereth. “Every time she ate or drank, we had to keep a close eye on her in case she started choking. Even then, we couldn’t prevent it from happening. We just had to be prepared to deal with it if it did.”

Thanks to VitalStim, a swallowing therapy offered at Sanford Health, Addison no longer has the symptoms of dysphasia, a disorder of swallowing.

Dysphagia is caused by conditions that weaken or damage the muscles and nerves used for swallowing. Addison, a triplet, was born four months prematurely and suffered a brain bleed when she was two days old. The neurological problems that resulted affected her left side as well as her ability to swallow.

“By the time she was eight months old, we knew she had problems swallowing which we assumed were related to reflux,” her mother said. “She would start choking on her own saliva or reflux. It wasn’t only after eating.”

It was at eight months the infant’s choking caused her to quit breathing. The Ereths called 911, and Addison was hospitalized for several days.

Addison also sounded “rattly,” Ereth said, as if she always had a cold. “She started choking on a daily basis and most times would vomit to clear her throat,” she said. “After that she didn’t want to continue eating. By the time she was two, she was embarrassed and scared by it.”

The increasing frequency of the choking episodes also caused anxiety for the parents anytime a sitter or family member would watch Addison.

In June 2009, Tracey Lockrem, a Sanford Health speech pathologist, suggested VitalStim therapy.

“VitalStim involves using specially designed electrodes to stimulate the specific muscles and nerves in the throat which control swallowing,” Lockrem said. “While the electrodes are in place, the patient eats and drinks to practice swallowing. The therapy helps exercise the muscles during natural movements, making them stronger.”

This innovative therapy is used for a variety of disorders or medical conditions which cause swallowing disorders including stroke, cerebral palsy, traumatic
  Tracey Lockrem
Tracey Lockrem
Speech pathologist
brain injury, head and neck cancer, Parkinson’s disease and generalized weakness.

“Swallowing disorders are mainly prevalent in the elderly, but we’re beginning to identify an increase in children who are born prematurely or have other physical conditions,” Lockrem said.

Addison started therapy with thickened liquids. After 16 sessions, all symptoms are gone. She is eating all foods without choking or gagging and no longer has a gurgle in her voice.

“Without VitalStim, eating for Addison would not be the pleasurable experience we all know,” Lockrem said. “She may have continued to have some gagging and choking as she grew older, which would have eventually become behavioral issues. There would also have been concerns about weight gain and upper respiratory infections, too.”

Ereth said the improvements came gradually. “One day I realized a week had gone by without her vomiting,” she said. “I couldn’t even tell you the last time I heard any rattling.”

She sums up the results as “amazing.”

“It has put us at a level of ease we never had before,” she said.

The couple does home physical and occupational therapies with their triplets and did try some swallowing exercises at home without much success. “We never would have been able to get Addison to where she is now without VitalStim,” Ereth said.

Addison and her brother Bennett receive therapies at Sanford Health. “I’m thrilled with all the therapists and the improvements the kids have made, particularly Addison,” Ereth said. “She has exceeded everybody’s expectations.”

She is also grateful this specialized therapy was available locally. “We had the utmost faith in Tracey,” she said. “We couldn’t have received better care anywhere else.”

Click here for more information about VitalStim or other children's therapies available at the Sanford Rehabilitation Center or call 701.323.6097.


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