Leah Herron

Leah Herron
It's a moment in 2011 that Leah Herron likely won’t forget.

“I all of a sudden couldn’t swallow,” the 29-year-old Dickinson, N.D., woman recalled in 2017.

“I couldn’t even swallow my own saliva. I was at home. At the time, I was living with my parents (in Omaha). My mom took me to the emergency room. . . . They kept me overnight and did an emergency endoscopy. They had to stretch and dilate my esophagus so I could swallow.” An esophagus is the human organ that connects your throat with your stomach.

It was the first of Leah’s four dilations over a four-month period in order to swallow. “They try to get the esophagus as dilated as they can before the tissue starts tearing,” she said.

An endoscopy solves Leah’s problem only temporarily. She’s had 14 dilations in the last six years, and had undergone a dilation once every two months at the Mayo Clinic facilities in Rochester, Minn., until a recent change in her treatment plan.

Two of her 1,200-mile round trips to Mayo were made affordable with help from NDAD’s medical travel assistance program.

NDAD had helped the Herron family in 2016, too, but the medical focus then was the youngest of their three children.

Blakeley, now 1, had severe acid reflux and needed separate surgeries in Sioux Falls, S.D., home of their baby’s gastrointestinal physician. “When you have to travel for medical things, there are not only the medical bills,” Leah said.

“Depending on your insurance and what the procedure is, you never know how much is going to be covered. So, not having to worry on top of the medical bills about gas and hotels just takes a really big weight off our shoulders. Especially with our daughter’s feeding tube, we didn’t have to worry whether we could get there or not and get to all of her appointments.”
The Herrons of Dickinson, in 2017: (from left) Caiden, Matt, Jacek, Leah and Blakeley.
Leah’s personal need for medical travel assistance surfaced after she was referred to Mayo by her gastrointestinal physician at Bismarck’s Sanford Health.

Leah has eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE). Once considered rare, EoE is an increasingly diagnosed chronic immune system disease believed to be a major cause of gastrointestinal illness.

“More doctors are realizing it exists and are biopsing for it, but the treatments haven’t caught up with it yet. Treatment for EoE is so different for each person, and just how complicated it is varies,” Leah said.

According to MayoClinic.org, EoE occurs when certain types of white blood cells, called eosinophils, invade the esophagus lining. Caused by a reaction to foods, allergens, acid reflux or another environmental trigger, this excessive buildup of eosinophils can inflame and injure the esophageal tissue.

“It takes about six to eight weeks before it starts damaging your esophagus,” Leah said. “So, it makes the process of figuring out what exactly is triggering it very difficult. It’s a loooong process to find out what foods cause it.”

Mayo recently revised its plans for Leah to undergo endoscopies and biopsies every two months. Her most recent dilation stretched her esophagus “as big as it will get,” she said. “They will never be able to get it to a ‘normal’ size esophagus due to scar tissue and damage from the eosinophils, but it is a big improvement compared to what it was.”

Leah’s eosinophil count has responded to medicine and diet alterations “so I do not have to go back for a whole year unless my swallowing gets worse before then.” 

She’s never gone more than six months between dilations, but the Herrons have fought for treatment for so long that seeing results is a really big relief for us.”

Matt Herron has been a youth pastor at Dickinson’s Hillside Baptist Church since early 2014. The Herrons’ other children are Caiden, 6, and Jacek, 2½.

Leah has long lived with food allergies that can cause a life-threatening bodily reaction called anaphylactic shock. She cannot have any peanuts or tree nuts, peas, tomatoes, fish or shellfish. She keeps an epinephrine autoinjector nearby to combat a sudden shock by quickly injecting adrenaline into one of her thighs. Leah has experienced anaphylactic shock only once, in 2009, after taking several bites of a fish stick. She had eaten fish before with no issues.

In addition, Leah said she’s “had to move my head differently to swallow certain things.” Some starchy foods are harder to swallow, such as potatoes and rice. Her bites usually are very small and her chews thorough.

She sometimes gets dehydrated, which has led to emergency room trips.

On that day in 2011, Leah said, “I was breathing fine. Nothing really hurt; I just couldn’t swallow anything, so it was very nerveracking.” Now, six years later and with new optimism about her health, Leah and Matt are thankful they could go to Mayo Clinic — and appreciative of NDAD’s assistance to help get them there. 

- Mike Brue

From the Spring 2017 NDAD Insider.

Read an update about the Herrons in the Spring 2019 edition of NDAD Insider.