Postdoc Cara Donohue awarded American Heart Association grant

Postdoctoral researcher Cara Donohue, Ph.D., has received a two-year $137,604 grant from the American Heart Association to test an intervention designed to strengthen breathing muscles and improve post-surgical outcomes in patients who have had heart surgery.

Patients recovering from cardiac surgery are at particularly high risk for developing swallowing impairments postoperatively, said Donohue, a UF BREATHE Center postdoctoral fellow mentored by Emily K. Plowman, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, a professor in the department of speech, language, and hearing sciences at the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions and director of the Aerodigestive Research Core.

Cara Donohue with research poster
Dr. Cara Donohue presents preliminary study findings  at a respiratory conference held in Lyon, France in March 2022.

Swallowing impairments in this population may be caused by prolonged intubation, resulting in damage to structures within the aerodigestive tract; generalized weakness and disuse in swallowing muscles; delirium and/or impaired cognition from sedation; damage to the recurrent laryngeal nerve during surgery due to the path it takes around the aortic arch; or diminished respiratory capacity.

These swallowing problems may lead to pneumonia, re-operation, sepsis, multi-organ failure, and up to a 15-fold increased odds of death.

For the new study, Donohue and colleagues will evaluate whether a four-week pre-op respiratory strength training program that involves inhaling and/or exhaling into a spring-loaded valve set to a specific resistance, can improve pulmonary and airway clearance, respiratory, swallowing and cough function, and other health outcomes in patients undergoing cardiac surgery who are at high risk of swallowing and pulmonary dysfunction.

“The goal of this research work is to prevent adverse postoperative health-related outcomes,” Donohue said. “This project is exciting because it’s a shift away from more traditional ‘reactive’ treatment approaches to be more ‘proactive’ with preventative patient care.”