Remember Zander? Well he’s got company. (The tube-free ranks are growing.)
Sadly, I kept putting off this post because the hugeness of the triumph deserves a truly well written, heartfelt description. Which takes time and energy that I’ve been lacking, though I’ve so wanted to muster it! But then I realized that I can’t tell the story any better than Jenny, Heath’s mom, an incredible writer and an amazingly intelligent and unstoppable mother. So I’m just going to give you the highlights and point you toward the blog that documents Heath’s journey: The Crunchy and the Smooth.
Heath is 15 months old and was 100% tube fed until a couple weeks ago. The need for his g-tube (gastrostomy button) was prompted by his difficult birth and the immediate, medically intense aftermath. The fly-by overview, in Jenny’s words: “cord wrapped tight around his neck, Apgars of 0, ambulance transport from a country mouse hospital to a city mouse NICU, diagnosis: hypoxic brain injury.” As the result of many necessary and lifesaving but overwhelming and traumatizing medical procedures that took place in the area of his nose and mouth (mainly intubation and suctioning), Heath developed Posttraumatic Feeding Syndrome. Until recently, to defend himself from further invasions, he batted away any food presented to him. He was scared, and who could blame him? The answer, his parents realized, was to build trust, apply no pressure, and to let him feel hunger and interact with food on his own terms (play picnics, for example).
I want to pause here and clarify, because “brain injury” is vague and doesn’t paint an accurate picture of Heath. While motor areas of Heath’s brain suffered injury during his birth, Jenny explained to me that his brain is repairing itself thanks to the amazing processes enabled by infant neuroplasticity. The ongoing repairs are evident, as I’ve noticed leaps in his development in the short time I’ve known Heath. Anyone who lays eyes on him can see that he is thriving in every way. He is one of the happiest, sweetest, most engaged and engaging babies I’ve ever met. He’s got a sense of humor. He communicates and makes friends easily. His weight is great. He’s meeting developmental milestones a little later than most, but he’s getting there–at his own happy pace (just like all babies, really). Of course, his mother has sought out various ways to support him in his physical development, including occupational therapy, movement sessions and even yoga–and he’s way better than me, seriously.
After much research, various forms of therapy, eye-opening revelations, and inspiration from the Graz model, an intensive wean was planned. The journey began on May 9th, with hands-on support from Dr. Markus Wilken, a psychologist with specialized expertise on feeding adversity. He came to the U.S. to help wean Heath as well as two other tube-fed children, who began eating faster than anyone expected! (You can read about Kai and Rosie’s simultaneous weaning successes at The Crunchy and the Smooth, as well.) Over his career, Wilken has helped wean more than 400 children from their feeding tubes. He leads the tube weaning program at Princess Margaret Hospital in Darmstadt, Germany and together with Martina Jotzo runs The Institute for Psychology and Psychosomatics of Early Childhood.
Jenny’s blog has all the weaning specifics, but I’ll say that it’s been quite a ride (as in nauseating ups and downs) for Heath and his parents, as most weans are. But, with no doubt, the weaning effort has been successful. The progress Heath has made is staggering. In short, and I am in complete awe though I never doubted he could do it, Heath has become an EATER. He is enjoying a diverse array of foods, with more and more being added to the menu each day. I’m smiling because Heath’s life is forever changed. And because any parent of a tube-fed child who reads this will experience the sensation of their heart doing a back flip within their chest. Brave Heath is going to help so many babies and kids escape from the limitations, pain and decreased quality of life (for the whole family) that comes from extended tube feeding–not just the physical and psychological effects of the tube itself but from the anxiety and helplessness of tube feeding with no end in sight, when your child has (often after much hard work, therapy, recovery) the ability but not the willingness to eat. The parents who stare into a proverbial black hole whenever they ask doctors or wonder to themselves about whether their child will ever be able to eat–they will discover hope in Heath.
To say that Heath’s mom deserves credit is such a vast understatement. The roller coaster ride she (and her wonderful husband) have been on since his birth, when Heath literally had to be brought back to life and the 35 terrifying days in the NICU that followed, is a testament to not only her strength, but her inestimable love and grace. I know why Heath smiles so much.
Practically speaking, this very smart woman is an accomplished journalist. You can tell by the quality of her writing–and the research and outreach to experts across the globe that she executed in her quest to empower Heath with the gift of autonomy and the joy of eating. So, parents of tube-fed children, please check out her Resources Page to hit the jackpot in terms of insights and data and all kinds of valuable, rare informational gems on the topics of tube weaning, tube feeding and associated trauma.
To everyone reading this… I hope you’ll go to The Crunchy and the Smooth and post a few cheerful and supportive words in the comments section. Heath has come a long, long way, but there is still patience and perseverance required by this family as they follow Heath’s lead and adjust to a whole new paradigm.
To Heath, Jenny and the man known as “Peanut”… big love, loud applause and quiet, awestruck respect from me, Stella and Cody. Enjoy every lick, bite and gulp! (We know you will.)
Thank you! I have been starting to question our health care system, which is very quick to put in tubes (although they are a great short term solution) but then provide next to no support in weaning. I am going to fight now.