EMOTIONAL PAIN: Social anxiety and depression can be experienced by the Dysphagia sufferer.
EMOTIONAL PAIN: Social anxiety and depression can be experienced by the Dysphagia sufferer.

A broken jaw totally changed everyday life

TWO years ago, Rachel Hawken was walking along a beachfront pathway when she tripped on the uneven pavement.

She fell heavily, landing on her chin. The result was a fractured jaw which has since been declared inoperable. Rachel can no longer chew food and is restricted to a soft food diet to enable swallowing.

The accident has changed Rachel's life in a way she could never have anticipated.

"People don't really understand what it means to be able to eat soft food only and it becomes a huge issue if you want to go out,” Rachel says.

"I went to a cafe for my birthday. There was nothing on the menu I could eat, so the owner offered me scrambled eggs on soft toast with no raw accompaniments. But it was all lost in translation. My meal arrived with uncooked tomatoes and spinach and hard sourdough. I ate the eggs and I left, leaving my husband tucking into his hamburger.

"It's difficult because my husband likes to eat out but the hospitality industry is so resistant to providing a soft food option that dining out has become a predicament for me.”

Rachel, who lives in Kingscliff in northern NSW, likens it to setting up for a day on the beach and encountering a sudden thunderstorm, her planned pleasure ruined.

"It has become such an unpleasant experience that I don't really want to dine out now, my heart sinks whenever I receive an invitation for lunch or dinner - what will I be able to eat?

"But it really shouldn't be that difficult. The food doesn't have to be pureed, it just has to be soft and moist and with a sauce.”

Rachel is one of millions of Australians who suffer from dysphagia, a condition that means difficulty swallowing.

Simone Howells, a lecturer in speech pathology at Griffith University, says there are no Australian studies that capture completely the number of people who suffer from dysphagia but one statistic suggests one in three people experience the problem.

"It is most common in people over 65 but, for example, babies with cleft palates or cerebral palsy may experience dysphagia, anyone who has had a stroke, and increasingly we are seeing a younger demographic of people in their 20s and 30s who develop head and neck cancers,” says Ms Howells.

"Dysphagia can have significant emotional impacts as it makes socialising difficult. A person with dysphagia can't go to a normal cafe and order off a normal menu.

"It is also difficult for them to manage it at work, preparing drinks that need to be thickened, bringing special lunches that might need to be pureed or mashed up.

"People with dysphagia are much more likely to experience social anxiety and depression. It is also known to affect their relationships - your loved one might want a steak but feels he/she can't have one because you can't.

"It can also affect how people function in society and they can disengage from their regular activities. It can have very negative consequences.”

Ms Howells is conducting research on dysphagia for her PhD and recently published a recipe book Beyond the Blender: Dysphagia Made Easy with 30 recipes designed for people living with dysphagia.

She is keen to educate the broader community about modified food, in particular the hospitality industry.

"We need to raise public awareness about the impacts of dysphagia and encourage chefs to think outside the square. It's not a sexy topic but it is a real issue for many Australians.”

Flying to the United Kingdom in July has raised its own problems for Rachel. "I asked the airline if they provided a soft diet option. Their answer was baby food. I just don't see why it's so hard to have just one soft food option available. There must be many others in my situation who travel.”

Rachel is determined to change catering attitudes towards soft food. "I would like something good to come out of this very unfortunate incident. I don't want it to be all negative.

"Friends tell me I am wasting my time trying to educate the hospitality industry. 'Just order a bowl of chips,' they tell me. Is that to be my planned pleasure forever?”

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