February 3rd, 2003

Contact:   Jennifer Kurczek
     Community Relations Director

     (920)361-5481 or




BMH service makes life a little easier for patients to swallow


The downside of life is a now little easier to swallow for some Berlin Memorial Hospital (BMH) patients.


That’s because the Community Health Network (CHN) hospital has started providing on-site swallowing evaluations to detect and treat swallowing disorders.


The service, officially called a modified barium swallow study, is offered through the hospital’s Diagnostic Imaging department, in cooperation with Kristen Mertens, Certified Speech Language Pathologist, CHN’s Proformance Rehabilitation division.


“When people cannot swallow correctly, their quality of life can really deteriorate,” Mertens said. “By conducting a swallow evaluation, we are able to determine the cause of the problem and hopefully help alleviate their condition in order to make eating and drinking easier – and more enjoyable.”


Persons who have experienced a stroke, another type of neurological injury or head trauma, or certain types of cancers, as well as children, may experience problems with swallowing – which is clinically referred to as dysphagia. Symptoms of the condition include coughing or choking during or after eating, hoarseness after eating, food coming out through the nose and frequent heartburn, indigestion or respiratory infection. Left untreated, dysphagia can not only cause difficulty eating and drinking, which can significantly reduce nutritional intake, but may also develop into aspiration pneumonia.


More common with very young or elderly patients, this type of pneumonia is caused by foreign bodies, such as food particles or liquids entering the lungs. If not detected early, it can cause severe breathing problems and potentially be fatal, Mertens said.


The Modified Barium Swallow Study

After the patient’s physician orders a swallow evaluation, he or she arrives at the hospital and registers at the Diagnostic Imaging department. The patient is then led to an x-ray room where he or she will slip into a gown and a lead smock to protect from x-ray exposure.


The speech language pathologist then begins giving the patient a variety of liquids and foods coated with barium, which allows images of the mouth, throat, esophagus to be seen on x-ray. As the patient swallows the liquid or food item, usually starting with water and then progressing to items of various textures and thicknesses, the speech language pathologist evaluates the swallow while the radiologist records the image on film or video for further evaluation after the study is completed.


“A modified barium swallow study is fast, painless, and objective, which is why it’s a tremendously useful tool in treating patients with dysphagia,” Mertens said. “Once I’ve had the opportunity to review the results and discuss them with a patient’s primary care physician, we can then begin a course of treatment.”


Treatment may include swallowing exercises or techniques, use of liquid thickeners, and/or a modified diet, Mertens said.


“Our goal is to develop a treatment plan that is truly temporary – helping the patient to overcome his or her swallowing difficulty and essentially to avoid sacrificing quality of life,” she said.


A graduate of Berlin High School, Mertens earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in speech pathology/communicative disorders from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is certified by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and is licensed by the State of Wisconsin. She completed her hands-on competency training for modified barium swallow studies through Theda Clark Regional Medical Center and Appleton Medical Center.


More information about CHN’s swallow studies and other speech therapy services is available by calling Proformance at (920)361-5534 or 1-800-236-1283 x 5534.