Hope & Healing: The UF Health Blog

Relearning to Swallow: Bill's Journey with Amy

Bill on top of Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee

Bill was familiar with the drive from Tallahassee to Gainesville, from when his daughter was a student at the University of Florida. He had even started supporting the football team, for every game but the FSU vs. UF game, of course.

What Bill didn’t anticipate was having to make that drive many times over a decade later, for a much different reason.

A businessman and business owner, Bill would travel for work quite often. On a business trip to Chicago, Bill could see, and feel, his neck was extremely swollen. Thinking it was strep throat, he went to the local emergency room to get it checked out. He ended up spending three days in the intensive care unit since physicians thought it was an infectious disease. After no improvement, he flew home to Tallahassee to see his physicians there. The physicians in Tallahassee referred him to see a cancer specialist, just in case.

“I went to UF Health Shands because of the reputation, proximity and the unique skill set it offered.”

Bill knew UF Health had the world-class experts in cancer, and after getting diagnosed with stage IV head and neck cancer, was glad he chose to see the physicians here. His treatment plan was aggressive, with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

Thankfully, his surgery was successfully and he didn’t need chemotherapy, only radiation. Because of the sensitive area of where the cancer was, Bill was unable to eat and swallow for many weeks. He even had to use a feeding tube for three of those weeks.

Recovery was long and relearning how to swallow was a whole other part of his journey, yet another unexpected route. Luckily he met Amy Fullerton, SLP, BCS-S, a speech-language pathologist at the UF Health Speech and Hearing Center who specializes in swallowing.

Amy is one of the nearly 300 speech-language pathologists in the United States, one of 24 in Florida alone, who got her board certification in swallowing. This rare certification includes an arduous application process paired with having to clock 350 hours of clinical work treating patients with swallowing disorders or dysphagia. She also had to get 750 hours of continuing education and prove leadership in her field. After this process Amy sat for a comprehensive examination involving detailed head and neck anatomy, physiology, cranial nerve function and diagnosis, management and treatment of disorders resulting in dysphagia. She was relieved when she finished the multiple choice part and got to the case study part, which involved management of a patient with head and neck cancer, and is her specialty. Once she passed she became a board-certified swallowing specialist. Amy’s inspiration during this three-year process was helping patients like Bill regain control of their swallowing, thus regaining control of their eating habits and overall well-being.

“I get a lot of strength and courage from watching my patients go through what they do,” said Amy, also a clinical lecturer in the department of speech, language, and hearing sciences at the College of Public Health and Health Professions. “It is humbling to be able to help them recover basic functions like speech or swallowing after their devastating cancer treatments. One of my biggest pleasures comes from seeing patients like Bill doing wonderfully years later. That keeps me motivated.”

Bill began to see Amy once a week during radiation to retrain his throat and neck to swallow. She gave him multiple exercises to practice at home during his recovery, as well as sharing tips to help him swallow easier when their sessions were over.

“Amy was extremely critical in my recovery.”

Because of the feeding tube and difficulty swallowing Bill had lost a lot of weight. To help keep up his energy he ate very healthily. He also worked on building up his cardio.

“I walked from the Hope Lodge to the Davis Cancer Pavilion for treatments.”

Bill continued to see Amy for swallowing sessions for a few months after radiation ended. Now he no longer needs therapy but still uses the exercises she taught him.

He is back to his old self and living a healthy lifestyle. Bill makes sure to make every moment count with his family and makes them a priority.

“It’s remarkable what one can go through in a year.”

About the Author

Leah Harms's picture

Leah Harms

Marketing Coordinator

Leah Harms joined the UF Health Communications team in early 2016 and serves as a marketing coordinator for multiple service lines within UF Health, including orthopaedics and sports medicine, women's...Read More