Samantha Anderson figured she had a work-packed weekend ahead when something happened at breakfast: The then-39-year-old couldn't swallow a single bite. "I went to swallow and I couldn’t," says the Australian jewelry maker. "It didn’t happen. I choked." The mother of three dismissed it until she couldn't eat anything that day and went to a doctor, who diagnosed stress and prescribed Valium, then anti-depressants, Australia's News Network reports. Then, after six months of weight loss and ravenous hunger, an answer: dysphagia—an unusual condition that prevents people from swallowing. "My days became solely about survival," she writes for the Swallowing Disorder Foundation. "I would set goals for myself—a whole tub of yogurt, a glass of water and two whole strawberries to be consumed by the end of the day. I rarely met them."
Doctors told her a bout of shingles had damaged cranial nerves V, VII, IX and X, which triggered her swallowing issue. (Mosaic Science notes 7 of our dozen cranial nerves have a role in swallowing.) More than 18 months later, she had a feeding tube inserted; it provided a welcome relief from the 13 drinks she had been tasked with trying to choke down each day. The Brisbane resident and her husband then contacted US expert Peter Belafsky, whom she credits with understanding and helping her. "It’s like being constantly waterboarded," Belafsky says of dysphagia, which can render patients unable to swallow even their own saliva. Some 3.5 years after her fateful breakfast, Anderson's diet has expanded to include mashed potatoes, blueberries, oatmeal, and bread. "I am determined to eat," she writes, "even though it’s a long and arduous battle to get through each and every meal." (In another case, a teenager's bleeding eyes are ruining her life.)