Despite Swallowing Issues, I Take Sips of Gratitude With Smoothies

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by Halsey Blocher |

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On a hot summer day, you will usually find yourself needing a cool drink to quench your thirst sooner or later. You might choose a cold glass of water, lemonade, soda, or iced tea. My go-to is always some type of fruit smoothie, though sometimes I’ll opt for a milkshake, Frappuccino, or another frozen option.

I choose these frozen beverages partly because they’re delicious, but they’re also a necessity. While a glass of ice water is undoubtedly refreshing, I can’t drink it or anything of a similar consistency, including all of the first examples listed above. They are classified as thin liquids, and because the muscles needed for swallowing are weakened by SMA, I can’t swallow them without a high risk of aspirating the fluid into my lungs, which can cause pneumonia.

It still takes a lot of effort for me to swallow thicker liquids, like smoothies, because I have to swallow around 10 times, compared to one swallow by most people, to successfully drink the same thing. Even with the extra effort required, this is still safer than attempting to swallow thin liquids, and it might just mean that I get to savor the flavor of my drink for a little longer.

There was a time in my life when my beverage options were only as limited as what could be found in the refrigerator. During childhood, choking and aspiration were concerns on the radar, but my condition had not yet progressed to the point where I needed to avoid certain liquids. That changed after my hospitalization in 2011.

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During that hospital stay, my health rapidly deteriorated, and all of my muscles became more fatigued and atrophied than they’d ever been. Eating and drinking were out of the question. Instead, my body became dependent on IV fluids until a feeding tube could be placed to provide nutrition and hydration.

As we slowly crawled toward the time of my discharge many weeks later, there was an extensive list of things that needed to be done and learned before I went home. To name a few, my mom needed to relearn much of my care now that I had new medical equipment and surgical sites; medical supplies and oxygen needed to be ordered and delivered to our home; and home healthcare nurses needed to be hired.

Completing a swallow study was also on the list.

The test’s goal was to reassess my swallowing abilities to determine what, if anything, I could now safely eat and drink. The results weren’t favorable. Live scans showed that everything I attempted to swallow took a detour toward my lungs and needed to be suctioned back out through my tracheostomy tube. To prevent falling ill again, I would need to forgo food for the foreseeable future and continue relying on my feeding tube for all nutrition.

In the months that followed, it was odd not to share meals with family and friends. When I was well enough to get out of bed, I still sat at the table with everyone, but I was the only one without a plate or cup. I missed partaking in such a simple pleasure, but I was alive to enjoy the company of my loved ones. That was more important than any meal.

swallowing issues | SMA News Today | photograph of Halsey with her trach, staring at a ladybug on a cardboard tube

For most of 2011, Halsey Blocher was unable to enjoy the taste of food, but she found other reasons to smile, like watching a ladybug run around a paper towel tube. (Courtesy of Halsey Blocher)

At the time, we didn’t know if I’d ever be able to swallow anything again, but I was referred to a speech therapist who provided swallowing exercises and helped figure out which foods worked best. We spent quite a bit of time practicing with applesauce, yogurt, and pudding.

After nine months, another swallow study was conducted, and this one had much better results. More of what I swallowed was going down correctly. I’d still need my feeding tube, but I was cleared to eat soft foods and thick liquids.

It’s been over a decade since all of this, and smoothies — store-bought and homemade — are still a part of my daily diet. I was rather excited when I recently realized that there’s a day for these wonderful drinks: National Smoothie Day, which falls on June 21, the first day of summer.

swallowing difficulties | SMA News Today | Halsey and her mom smile for a photo next to a large styrofoam cup from Smoothie King

Halsey Blocher and her mom, Heather Dye, love to enjoy smoothies together any day of the year. This photo was taken after a trip to their favorite smoothie shop in January 2021. (Courtesy of Halsey Blocher)

For my family, fun days such as this can serve as reminders to appreciate these nutrients that we get to put into our bodies and the vibrant flavors that dance across our tongues. We know that while smoothies may seem like something small, we can still be grateful for them, and the time we enjoy together while sipping them.

Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.

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