Meet Diego

Back in mid-November, when Stella’s NG tube was put into her cute nose and down into her then-hungry and confused tummy, I was understandably freaked out. I wondered if it was the right thing to do. I worried about how it would affect her. So I did the worst possible thing I could do. I turned to the internet for answers. What I found, mainly on message boards and on random, unofficial-looking “medical” websites, was horror story upon horror story about how NG tubes make feeding aversions worse. How they lead to complete oral aversions, make reflux worse and pave the way to surgically inserted g-tubes. I was so scared.

Rocio and Diego, bonding not long after his premature birth.

Rocio and her precious and miraculous Diego, bonding not long after his premature birth.

I did have the good sense to realize that the people most likely to turn to the web are those who, like myself at the time, are struggling. If things are going well with your child, or if you’ve overcome an issue and are no longer in it, you’re less motivated to go to the web and tell your story. You don’t need answers and support. You’re not desperate for any tidbit of information you can get. I knew that out in the real world, there were probably lots of babies who’d been on NG tubes for a short time and then resumed normal eating. Through my occupational therapist, I learned about the amazing Libby. And then, one night, through comments she left here on this blog, I met an incredible mother named Rocio and her son Diego.

That evening, Rocio did what I had done. She felt a rising sense of panic after reading terrible anecdotes about NG tubes online. She then came across Stella’s story and was encouraged to see that Stella was making progress with eating. Rocio and I began to communicate regularly via email. In a sense, it felt like we were in this together. This woman I had never met who understood everything I was going through and vice versa. We were going to get our babies off the tube. And no other outcome was acceptable. As scared as we were, we knew they could do it.

Rocio’s son Diego was born prematurely, at 28 5/7 weeks gestation. He was tube-fed from birth, first through his mouth, then, after graduating to “level 2” in the NICU, through his nose via a nasogastric (NG) tube, just like the one Stella had. As Rocio explained, Diego developed reflux while learning how to eat, which set him back. As in Stella’s case, the pain all but eliminated his desire to eat. After spending three months in the hospital, Rocio pushed to have Diego sent home, so that he could enjoy a more comfortable, cozy, non-medicalized environment. So, Rocio and her husband bravely learned how to maintain the NG tube, and headed home with their son, unsure about what the future held.

Like Stella, Diego had a Merry first Christmas--even with the NG tube.

Like Stella, Diego had a Merry first Christmas--even with the NG tube.

Rocio was on the same nauseating rollercoaster we had ridden. So many ups and downs. Exhilarating upswings of hope followed by crushing disappointments. Early on in our communications, at the very end of December, she told me, Diego was “not passing the 25 to 30 cc mark of drinking his bottle per feeding.” (There are about 30 cc’s or mls per ounce.) It was a tough time. But once in a while, he finished entire bottles–it took over an hour, but he was FINISHING them. And more progress quickly followed. One day, she told me that Diego took 90 mls in 45 minutes. He was showing that he could do it.

On February 4th, I received an unforgettable, elated email from Rocio. She told me that Diego had been without a tube for three weeks, and that he was thriving. In fact, he was gaining approximately one ounce  per day! Based on all the research I’ve done and my learning from the director of the Austrian tube weaning clinic, I know that this is amazing weight gain, especially so soon after the tube’s removal. Rocio was thrilled, and I truly felt her joy.

A GI doctor confirmed that Diego’s tube was gone for good. At this point, Stella had been without a tube for exactly one month, and it was also clear that her tube was gone for good. We’d done it.

Like Stella, Diego still had some difficulty swallowing. For us, thickening Stella’s formula did the trick. Last I heard from Rocio, Diego was going to have “ECI (Early Childhood Intervention) therapy because the swallowing study projected that he still needs to learn how to swallow better.”

I asked Rocio what she believed was the key to Diego’s success. Her answer was simple. First, Diego needed time to mature. Having been born so early, he didn’t have enough practice. (Babies learn to swallow in the womb.) Then, Rocio needed to get over her fear. Naturally, she worried that he would get sick or be undernourished upon the tube’s removal–even if a deeper part of her knew he no longer needed it. Lastly, she pointed to the removal of the tube as the most important aspect of his feeding progress. Rocio explained, “Pray and have faith. Babies will eat without [the tube] once they feel the need and understand that if they do not want to eat the regular way, they will have no other way to do so.”

With his tube days behind him, Diego is radiant and thriving!

With his tube days behind him, Diego is radiant and thriving!

Rocio fought for Diego. She faced incredibly challenging circumstances with Diego’s premature birth and extended hospital stay. She had to push just to take him home. Then she found the support and therapy he needed. Then she made the big decision to follow her instincts and take out the tube. This is a beautiful, healthy boy who has overcome some daunting odds. And he’s very lucky to have Rocio as his mother.

Whenever I think about Stella’s challenges with eating, that very trying time in our lives and how we overcame it all, I’ll think of Rocio and Diego, too.

The road to a tube-free Stella.

At long last, we see GI!

Yesterday, after waiting for weeks, we met with Gastroenterology (GI) at Seattle Children’s Hospital. They adjusted and increased Stella’s meds, since reflux still seems to be causing some pain and preventing her from eating more. We will also meet regularly with a GI nutritionist who can help us figure out how to wean Stella off the tube. I am so excited to have this extra help, to speed along the process of achieving a tube-free Stella.

They also recommended that we cut back from two to one tube feeding at night. That way, she should be more hungry during the day, and hopefully we’ll see her bottle intake rise. We THRILLED because it’s a step toward ending our reliance on the tube, and because we’ll only have to wake up once during the night! Being better rested should help our ability to cope with any ups and downs, and hopefully any improvements in our wellbeing and attitude will rub off on Stella.

Our hospital experience

We have benefited tremendously from the experts at Children’s, mainly on an outpatient basis, and I am so very thankful that we live so close to one of the best children’s hospitals in the world. On the other hand, as I mentioned in an earlier post, mistakes were made, during our four-day hospital stay in November, that diminished the value of our time there. I was recently reminded that I promised to explain what happened, and so far haven’t followed up. So here goes…

The decision was made to admit Stella to Children’s because her weight gain was slow and because she had such a strong, intense aversion to eating that it was requiring superhuman, beyond stressful, round-the-clock efforts to feed her. And even after my weekly, monumental feeding campaigns, she’d only gain two to four ounces per week at the MOST, when at her age she was expected to gain around an ounce per day. And she’d gained well until early October, around the time of her ER visit due to an incidence of vomiting and bloody diarrhea, when her rate of weight gain slowed to a near halt. Something was very wrong and it was clear that we needed more hands-on help.

During the check-in procedure during which they asked us all kinds of questions about Stella, while crying and watching a smiling Stella squirm on the oval, crib-like, hospital bed, I wondered aloud to the nurse, “She looks so happy. Why we are here?”

The nurse replied, with empathy in her voice, “We see babies like Stella all the time.” Somehow, this was reassuring. Besides, I absolutely knew that we could not continue living as we had been. It was becoming unbearable.

Blunder number 1

As you know by now, Stella’s course of treatment entailed placement of the NG tube and a switch from breastmilk to hypoallergenic formula. We had to feed her every three hours, trying by bottle first, then giving her via tube whatever she didn’t take (we basically still do this). The hospital’s first mistake was prescribing a level of formula intake that was insufficient for proper growth. In fact, they weren’t giving her much more than I’d been able to force her to take at home! I discovered this upon meeting with the nutritionist, who shook her head when she saw the level of intake that Stella had been given up to that point in her hospital stay.

No wonder Stella had been screaming in hunger a half an hour before the bottle was due. And even more upsetting was that her bottles were often delivered to our room late. I had to go out and remind them that it was time for Stella to eat. We were there because she wasn’t eating enough, and at times, she was more hungry than ever.

Blunder number 2

I detected the second unfortunate error during rounds. Before attending rounds that morning, when a flock of doctors gathered outside our room to review and discuss Stella’s status and progress, I’d asked one of the residents to bring her growth chart so that I could take a look. I’d heard three different doctors/residents cite three different growth percentiles for Stella, and I’d had enough. I wanted to know where she stood. Period. So I examined the chart after grilling the doctors during rounds, and immediately noticed that while Stella was not yet three months old, her weights had been plotted as if she were FOUR months old. Therefore, her growth curve looked like it had totally flat-lined, when, in fact, it had not.

They were taken aback by my discovery and tripped over themselves in the rush to reassure me about her course of treatment, reminding me that she needed to be there because “it shouldn’t be this hard to feed your child.” You think? I knew this, of course, but was alarmed upon realizing that the decision-making about my sweet Stella’s care had been driven by incorrect data. She hadn’t dropped, percentile-wise, in the drastic fashion they’d believed. And to make matters more mind-bendingly frustrating, I’d actually been purposefully proactive about preventing just such a misunderstanding. Soon after setting up camp in her hospital room, I wrote on the white board by her bed all of Stella’s recorded weights, listed in sequential order with all dates provided. There were at least a dozen weights listed, painting a damned clear picture of her growth for all to see.

During our initial meeting with the resident assigned to be our point-person, I showed him her weight history, scrawled on the wall in smelly marker. He glanced at it and said, “Oh yeah, thanks, that’ll be so helpful.” I don’t think he or anyone else ever looked at it despite my pointing it out to several people, making sure they knew it was there. If they’d given this information just a moment or two of real attention, as they said they would, the misunderstanding about her weight gain and percentile drop would’ve been avoided.

To this day, I can’t help but wonder if a more appropriate course of treatment would’ve been to both try hypoallergenic formula and give the reflux meds a chance to kick in before resorting to an NG tube.  I wonder, if they’d realized that her weight was just a bit low and not in some perceived “danger zone,” would they have treated her differently? I try not to think about this too much. I try to focus on how great Stella’s growth has been and applaud the progress she’s made in drinking from the bottle, despite the presence of the tube. But on tough days, after a feeding where she takes only half a bottle, doubt creeps in where hope should be.

Blunder number 3

The final mistake was perhaps most upsetting. Upon our arrival, stool, blood and urine samples were collected and a mind-boggling array of tests were run in order to get a baseline of how she was doing before the switch the formula. We were shocked when the resident told us that no lactose was detected in her stool, which meant that there was no reason to suspect lactose intolerance. One week earlier, stool testing had shown high levels of lactose in her stool. It wasn’t being broken down, suggesting lactose intolerance, or more specifically, that damage to her intestines had inhibited her ability to break down lactose (this would be temporary lactose intolerance that goes away when the intestinal walls are allowed to heal). I asked him and the head doctor during rounds and on at least two other occasions, “So she’s not lactose intolerant? Are you SURE?” I just found it hard to believe. But they kept telling us that the test was indeed negative so, while they couldn’t be 100% sure, they had no reason to believe she was lactose intolerant.

Because of this, we didn’t see a gastroenterologist during our stay, even though one of the main motivations for being admitted was to speed up the process of meeting with GI and getting to the bottom of whatever was bothering Stella.

You can probably guess what happened next. A few hours before we checked out of the hospital, we met with a very attentive doctor, Lindsay Fox, who ruly seemed to empathize with us and care about Stella. We shared with her all our concerns and points of confusion, and she actually listened. I mean, you could tell. You could feel in your heart that she really LISTENED. And then, because she actually heard what we had to say, she took decisive and thoughtful action.

After our talk, she reviewed all of Stella’s test results and discovered that her stool testing did indeed show a high reading for lactose, suggesting lactose intolerance! The computer program usually highlights abnormal values, but for some reason, failed to do so with Stella’s results. The normal reading for this test was .5, and Stella’s reading was .75. The doctor confirmed this when she called to talk to a GI doctor about Stella. The doctors had relied solely on the computer to interpret the results of her tests. This is perhaps not surprising or offputting. And hindsight is 20/20. However, when a specific result comes back and is surprising in some way or conflicts with another recent test result, and when the patient’s parents constantly question you about the result, it probably makes sense to take a closer look.

When the round of results came back, in addition to getting the surprising news that lactose intolerance was not an issue, we were told that the only abnormal reading was the presence of fatty acids, which meant that Stella had not broken them down. This had been mentioned to us, but then completely dismissed as if of little to no importance, mainly because there were no other red flags (as they’d missed the abnormal lactose  or “reducing substances” reading). They didn’t know why fatty acids were passing through, and didn’t suggest any further action. Thankfully, Dr. Fox thought about how we could investigate this further. So right before we left, she ordered blood testing to look at certain vitamin levels. I don’t understand the full details, but low levels of specific vitamins would give us some insight into whether fatty acids were being absorbed adequately. Dr. Fox also wrote an order for follow-up stool sampling, so that we could see if the switch to Elecare had helped address the malabsorption issues (answer: yes, it did).

I can’t tell you how much it meant to get this type of attention and follow-through. It’s no excuse, but my theory is that because Stella looked and acted pretty happy and healthy, she wasn’t a high priority. I did the best I could in being an advocate for her, but looking back, I wish I had pushed people even more. It didn’t help that we were so exhausted, waking up every three hours to try and feed her by bottle and then, when she didn’t take enough, to have to wait for someone to come in and help us give her the rest via the tube.

Children’s called their mode of operation “team medicine,” as if it were a positive, collaborative approach. But what it really meant, in our actual, hour-to-hour experience, was that you rarely see the same doctors or residents twice. Rarely was anyone on the same page. If they were truly a team, every new doctor or nurse that we saw would’ve been totally up to speed on Stella’s story and they wouldn’t have contradicted each other constantly. I would’ve have had to explain the same concerns or ask the same questions over and over. It was maddening at times. There we were, our precious baby girl now with a tube up her nose based on our trust that they knew what they were doing, and they were undermining that trust at just about every turn. I think that our experience in the hospital helps explain why to this day we remain fearful and skeptical of the tube. There’s a part of us that wonders if it was really the right thing to do.

The hospital stay is in the past, of course. We are moving forward! Stella is having a bit of a rough day but we know she will turn it around again. We’ll see her pediatrician tomorrow, and hopefully we’ll have another round of cranial osteopathy on Saturday. Stella has a huge team of talented doctors and other practitioners behind her. With their help, we will reach the tube-free promiseland. And soon!