A Different Kind of Battle: War Veteran Learns How to Talk and Swallow Again After Cancer

The first thing one notices about Patrick Koler is the quiet strength that radiates from him. He stands tall and proud, a veteran of the Vietnam War who has experienced more in his life than most could fathom. He survived the jungles of Vietnam, exposure to the chemical poison Agent Orange, a cancer diagnosis, rigorous chemo-radiation therapy, jaw reconstruction surgery, and the aftereffects that lead him to Yakima Valley Memorial’s care.

Patrick’s story began many decades ago as a 19-year-old drafted into the Vietnam War. Patrick and his fellow soldiers were on a mission through the dense jungle when they noticed planes spraying the area.

“I was using a machete to cut through the elephant grass and thought it was unusual for them to be spraying,” said Patrick. “We didn’t know anything about what they were doing.”

As they continued into the jungle, Patrick noticed the elephant grass beginning to fall limply to the ground. Patrick would later find out he had been exposed to one of the deadliest dioxins created: Agent Orange.

“It’s hard for me to talk about those missions, but I survived them and made it home,” said Patrick.

Shortly after his return, Patrick moved to Yakima, Washington, to attend Perry Trade School, now known as Perry Tech, to become an electrician. He fell in love with the area and decided to put down roots.

In 2003, Patrick’s strength was tested once again when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma in his mouth, lymph nodes, and the base of his spine. Patrick was given three to six months to live.

His team of doctors at the VA hospital in Seattle and the University of Washington approached him about a trial regimen for treating aggressive forms of cancer. Knowing his options were limited, Patrick volunteered.

“I was in for the whole enchilada,” Patrick joked, recalling the procedures he endured. “It started off with two types of chemo — one that was standard and a new one. Soon after, they introduced me to the radiation treatment, which had me going in once a day, but quickly I was getting radiation twice a day, eight hours apart. They were giving me the maximum amount of radiation a human could handle.”

While the treatment destroyed the cancer, it also resulted in more medical issues a decade later. The radiation ate through Patrick’s carotid, the main artery to the brain, leaving it riddled with holes. An extensive surgery was needed for repairs.

Not long after this surgery, a piece of Patrick’s jawbone pierced his skin, causing excruciating pain. Doctors in Yakima and Swedish Hospital in Seattle discovered the radiation treatment had also disintegrated Patrick’s jaw, meaning he would need to undergo reconstruction surgery. Scheduling the nine-hour procedure, however, took nearly six months.

Despite the surgery’s success, Patrick was left unbelievably weak. He couldn’t swallow or speak and relied on a feeding tube. Patrick was eventually referred to Dr. Melissa Rudick, a speech-language pathologist at Yakima Valley Memorial.

Since December 2021, Patrick and Dr. Rudick have worked on strengthening his swallowing muscles, increasing his jaw mobility so he can fit utensils and food into his mouth, and exercising his tongue to assist with speech and swallowing. His treatment has progressed so well that the frequency of his appointments has decreased from weekly to once every three weeks.

“What I like about [Melissa] is that she looked at my swallowing tests and showed me the areas we have to work on,” said Patrick. “It’s up to me now, though. Melissa gave me the tools and now it’s up to me to use those tools.”

With a beaming smile, Patrick announced he was recently able to start eating soft food and hasn’t used a feeding tube since July 1, 2022, thanks to Dr. Rudrick's consistent dedication.

A Different Kind of Battle: War Veteran Learns How to Talk and Swallow Again After Cancer

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