Sussex County woman regains ability to eat for a memorable holiday

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:52

    VERNON-Imagine being unable to eat for more than a year. For 55-year-old Catherine Marhevka of Vernon, not being able to swallow solid food or enjoy a meal with family and friends had become a reality. "During 2002 I started losing my voice and had a persistent soreness in my neck. I was also having trouble swallowing. Initially my doctor hoped that it was just a sore throat and prescribed antibiotics. He suggested seeing an ENT specialist if it didn't get better," says Marhevka. Unfortunately, Marhevka failed to respond to antibiotics and on Oct. 29, 2002, was rushed to St. Anthony Community Hospital in Warwick, N.Y. because of difficulty breathing. Ear, nose and throat specialist Ofer Jacobowitz, MD, performed an emergency tracheotomy to help Marhevka breathe. During surgery he found a tumor blocking Marhevka's airways. Further tests revealed she had laryngeal cancer. During her two-week stay at the hospital, doctors inserted a gastrostomy tube and Jacobowitz told Marhevka that she had two options: a laryngectomy with voice restoration prosthesis or a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. Marhevka elected to undergo the aggressive, eight-week treatment of chemo and radiation. By early 2003, tests showed that Marhevka had successfully battled the disease. In August, 2003, Marhevka's breathing tube was removed and the following month she began speech therapy. For practical purposes, it appeared that she was getting better. But one big problem persisted n she was still having trouble swallowing and was unable to eat solid food. "When I began therapy, I was still using a food tube and unable to take in food or liquids. From September, 2003 through March, 2004 I made great progress," she said. "My therapist began introducing liquids and pureed food. I had learned to eat on my side with success. "I ate lots of applesauce. But the following month, as my therapist slowly introduced egg salad & crackers, the trouble began. The food wouldn't go down. Regardless of what we'd try, the food just would not go down," she went on. "Throughout my therapy I'd been working with a speech pathologist. But in June, 2004, the hospital launched its own Speech Department and I was reassigned to staff speech pathologist Andrea Hamling. "One of the first things Andrea said to me was, ‘I'm going to have you eating by Thanksgiving.' Given all that I'd been through over the last year, I just replied, ‘If you could do that you'd be my hero!'" says Marhevka. After a couple of visits, Hamling realized that Marhevka's problem might actually be her upper esophageal sphincter, which had become fibrotic following radiation therapy treatment. Hamling advised Marhevka to see gastroenterologist David J. Ellis. She also insisted on being present during the upper endoscopy that Dr. Ellis would perform on Marhevka. "During the procedure, I discovered scar tissue high in the esophagus. I was able to break it up with the scope, clearing the passage," says Ellis. "Here was this woman who had been unable to eat for over a year. This was one of those truly gratifying moments you experience. She was so relieved and happy," he added. Marhevka awakened to find a hard roll and apple juice on the table beside her. Standing over her was Hamling, who said, "Let's see you eat this!" "I was shocked and amazed. I took a bite and it went down fine. I couldn't believe it. After over a year I was finally able to eat again! I was never a big eater, but to be able to eat anything you want is wonderful," says Marhevka. The Friday after the dilation of the fibrous rings around the esophagus, the gastrostomy tube was removed. On Saturday, Marhevka and her husband celebrated their anniversary by eating out in a restaurant. "I realize that it is so easy to take for granted something as simple as being able to sit down to a meal with family," she said the week before Thanksgiving. "I feel so fortunate knowing I'll be able to enjoy this Thanksgiving holiday."