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On the Front Lines of Dysphagia: Doug Stetzer

Dysphagia affects an estimated 590 million people worldwide[1], yet the swallowing disorder is often overlooked and unknown. On our blog and social media pages, we’ve been sharing the stories of patients, caregivers, healthcare professionals and others impacted by the disorder – our hope is that “On the Front Lines of Dysphagia” will help raise awareness of the disorder, and ultimately, as with everything we do, improve the lives of those living with it.

Our latest interview is with Doug Stetzer, director of innovation at Kent Corporation and developer of xanthan gum-based, ready-to-drink thickened beverages, now known as Thick-It® Clear Advantage® Beverages.

Q: What inspired you to create a patented thickened beverage for patients with dysphagia?

A: My grandmother. She had a series of strokes that left her unable to swallow – I didn’t even know what dysphagia was until she had it. There was an obvious need for better products, and unfortunately I didn’t get it done before she passed, but I kept going.

Q: What is your hope for people living with dysphagia in the future?

A: My hope for people living with dysphagia is that they will live with the dignity and respect they deserve. I want them to live without being embarrassed by something as simple as swallowing. One thing I’ve realized through the years is that my concerns about my morning commute or what I’m going to wear is nothing compared to the true concerns people living with dysphagia have each and every day. For people who can’t swallow, all they think about is that very fact. They become obsessed with it and it’s frustrating to watch. My grandmother was a very active and brilliant woman. She always pushed people to do better. After her diagnosis, it was painful to see her reduced down simply because she couldn’t swallow. It was tough to watch that.

Q: Tell me about your experience working with people with dysphagia and their caregivers.

A: When I was developing the product, we took it to a nursing home where they gave it to a patient, Samantha* for her feedback. Samantha required IV therapy to stay hydrated and was part of the population who couldn’t consume thickened starch products. We gave her the xanthan gum-based, ready-to-drink thickened beverages and then met in the office to discuss the attributes of the product. While we were in the office, the nurse’s aide came running in asking for more product because Samantha drank it all and wanted more. She hadn’t drank anything since her admission. At that moment, I knew I needed to dial in the formulation and complete it. I knew I had something there.

One night I was working late, and a man called frantically because his son wouldn’t take the thickened starch product. He was becoming dehydrated and his veins were collapsing, and the doctor told the man and his wife that they should be prepared for their son to pass. I drove to Milwaukee with the xanthan gum-based product in tow to make sure the family had it by the next morning. The following week, I learned that the boy, David* was his name, was able to run up to the doctors and greet them. The doctors expected to see a bedridden child, but he wasn’t. I still get photos of him to this day, and when I’m having a bad day, I look at that photo and am reminded that there’s nothing I’m going to face that’s as tough as what David has had to face. His parents have been great advocates for our products. I do this because I’m able to make a difference in people’s lives.

Q: Have you seen firsthand how dysphagia affects patients’ dignity, confidence and quality of life?

A: When someone is living with dysphagia, you often see them withdraw. They sink into a palpable depression and can’t stop thinking about it. While you or I can eat whatever we want whenever we want, they can’t. There are a lot of people with dysphagia who are walking among us, and I don’t think people realize that. If you knew that person before dysphagia and you know them after a diagnosis, you can see that they are entirely different people. We’ve got to do more and provide more for them.


To learn more about the Thick-It® brand, our products and our history, visit the About Us page on our website.


*Patient names have been changed to protect their privacy.

[1] International Dysphagia Diet Standardisation Initiative.

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