SAT completed. University applications submitted. Acceptance letters in hand. I was on my way to college as a pre-med major! Wahoo!! I could not wait and then the unthinkable happened. A sweet 77-year-old lady named Mary Emma Johnson had a stroke. A big, bad temporal-parietal stroke. (I didn’t understand the implications of location of lesion at the time). She was wheelchair bound, with severe unilateral weakness, aphasic, and had dysphagia. What had just happened?
Mary Emma was so full of life just days before when we spoke on the phone. She was a wise old woman who had always encouraged me to believe in myself and get rid of that “inferiority complex” that plagued me. She cooked like a celebrity chef, kept an immaculately clean home (I never quite learned how to do that, but that did not keep her from trying to teach me) and was a joy to talk with. We had most of our conversations over a meal that she cooked, or a treat that she was dishing up. Now, I did not recognize her. I had this feeling that she was in there, I could tell by looking in her eyes, but she couldn’t share those pearls of wisdom with me any longer. My heart ached because I couldn’t help her. I was the designated person to stay with her during all of her therapy sessions. She hated PT and was often non-compliant. OT was a bit better and we could get her to participate if I stayed with her. Speech therapy was a different story. We NEVER had to coax her to go. Who was this magical person that made Mary Emma smile and told her she could get those words out and did not sentence her to a PEG tube? I had no idea what this stomach tube was at the time. She went to speech therapy with ease, practiced her speech exercises, and did trials of thin liquids. She could have a bit of coffee in Speech therapy. She idolized this bubbly, verbose, therapist. Speech was fun. Speech gave her hope. She progressed quickly and I was mesmerized by this SLP who seemed to work miracles with Mary Emma. I couldn’t get enough, I would ask questions and we would go home and practice, practice, practice. I made sure she was compliant and within a few weeks she was making great gains and even speaking in short sentences. I wanted to know more about this speech therapy stuff.
By the time Mary Emma was discharged from Speech Therapy she had progressed to a full mechanical soft diet on regular liquids. She could communicate basic needs and was even back in the kitchen with a bit of help (she had the OT to thank for that but would never admit it; she loved that darn SLP). She was never quite the same but I could see remnants of the old lady that I loved. She told me that she didn’t really care if she walked or cooked again, but she needed to be able to “talk” and “eat”. That did it for me. I headed off to college and decided to major in Communication Disorders. The rest as they say is “history”. The person who most inspired me in terms of dysphagia you ask? My grandmother, Mary Emma Johnson.
I completed my CFY ( it was awful) in Chicago and then went to work for Evanston Hospital Corporation, a Northwestern University affiliate Hospital. That is where my love for dysphagia developed. If we had a difficult dysphagia case we often called on Dr. Jerilyn Logemann to assist. I had no idea how complex swallowing really was and I never knew that an SLP had anything to do with it. I learned so much from Dr. Logemann and I have never looked back. She was my professional inspiration as a young clinician. Thanks to social media, I have had the opportunity to interact with so many wise and learned ‘swallowologists”. You all inspire me to be a better clinician. But the woman, who started it all for me was my Granny, Mary Emma Johnson.