Taking a stand against tube-feeding crimes and negligence

Someone needs to say it: tube-fed children and their families are being neglected and often outright abused by a dehumanizing, misguided health “care” system.

If you don’t believe me, read on. Or at the very least, get a glimpse of a far superior alternative by viewing this tube weaning lecture delivered at Seattle Children’s Hospital by weaning expert Markus Wilken, during his visit from Germany. This video is an invaluable resource, which I highly endorse, as you’ll see at the closing of this overdue rant.

Our tube feeding days are far behind us, yet memories haunt us. Like the time I inserted Stella’s nasogatric (NG) tube into her nose, only to have it come out her mouth, instead of going down to the base of her esophagus as planned. Of waking up every two hours to feed her at night, fumbling in the dark with a stethoscope and large plastic syringe in order to confirm correct placement of the tube before setting up the pump to run for 45 minutes–desperately trying to stay awake while it ran, so as to be able to respond in the event of a pump malfunction or choking incident. The blood that, after the first month of tube feeding, consistently encrusted the tube in her tiny nostril. And, in soul-crushing fashion, the bottles of outrageously expensive Elecare, not covered by insurance, that Stella triumphantly downed on occasion, only to re-emerge in projectile fashion thanks to tube-triggered gagging.

Crazily enough, none of these incidents were the turning point for me. None of them woke me up to the immediate need for the tube’s removal. Though I did often wonder how long this would go on, as there was no plan for weaning. I was doing what I was told because it was supposedly medically and therapeutically necessary. I have another mother to thank for my awakening–a mother who didn’t see such a need and whose child paid a huge price.

Back when Stella’s little baby face was accessorized by medical tape securing a thin but lengthy yellow NG tube, we made one of many trips to Seattle Children’s Hospital. This time for an abdominal ultrasound. In the waiting room, two women struck up conversations with me about, what else, Stella’s tube. “She looks so healthy,” said one, whose child also had feeding issues and was headed toward a tube. Then she asked the inevitable question: “Why does she have a tube?” I explained, and we commiserated about the misery of trying to feed a child who simply does not want to eat. The other, with empty eyes and a tired smile for Stella, commented along the lines of, “My son had an NG tube until he was five. Good luck. She looks great. I hope you get her off of it.” Suddenly, my stomach felt as though it were full of rocks. In that moment, I sank to a very dark place. But while down there, I resolved to never, ever let that happen to Stella. I decided to fight.

So, just to make this astounding fact clear, I’ll repeat it: I met a woman whose son lived with a nasogastric feeding tube until he was five years old. Five years of a thick tube through his nose (no doubt causing nasal ulceration), his esophagus irritated, the sphincters held open (encouraging reflux), food administered on some dietian’s strict schedule and chart regardless of what he thought or felt. It’s a perfect illustration of why I’m so angry. Really, really angry. I have been for a while.

I’m outraged at the treatment that many tube-fed children and babies are receiving from doctors and therapists. G tubes, the next step after NG tubes (if eating does not progress) and a much kinder solution in cases of long-term feeding, are not without problems. They require surgery, which when not done properly can cause extreme suffering and even when correctly inserted can contribute to excessive vomiting. I believe that there are many children with G tubes that do not actually need them, and that if physically able but still unwilling to eat, they should be given a chance to wean before surgery is considered. At the very least,  thoughtful, individualized approach should be taken by an interdisciplinary team of doctors, as opposed to the reckless, disorganized decision-making that is now widespread.

Based on my experience with Stella, I’m particularly concerned about those with long-term NG tubes, tubes meant only for short-term use. It’s not okay. Scientific evidence (which I will present in a later post) and common sense tell us that NG tubes cause extreme discomfort and difficulty (slowing of) swallowing. The frequent removal and reinsertion of this tube is traumatic and damaging for child and parent. No matter what kind of tube is used, a complete disconnect with hunger and extinguishing of the desire to eat is practically inevitable. The tube itself fuels eating refusal and aversion, long after the initial issues prompting the tube’s insertion have been addressed. (This is very different from children for whom tube weaning is not an option at all and long-term tube feeding a clear life-saver.) Families are plunged into despair, their lives shrunk down by the oppression of tube feeding (though, sadly, this comes to feel normal for many families), the incessant vomiting, the stunted growth that the tube was supposed to prevent, and the hopelessness that arises due an absence of a weaning plan. Or any plan for that matter. For most of these children, there is no way out. This is, with no exaggeration, a crime.

And then there is the so-called “therapy” provided to these children. When I hear stories of children being force fed, and there are a lot of them, I literally become sick to my stomach. It’s wrong. It’s a disgrace. Yet it’s happening at leading clinics and children’s hospitals across the country. One of the barbaric techniques used: Puree is shoved aggressively into toddlers’ unwilling mouths, which are then held shut for as long as it takes. As long as it takes for them to swallow–and it can take a very long time to swallow when you are terrified of food. What horror! Stella’s occupational therapist noted that some “graduates” of such programs later have to be desensitized after enduring such trauma, the process of learning to enjoy rather than fear food begins again but on even shakier ground. How can a brute-force approach possibly help a scared child discover the joy of eating? It can’t. If the child does eat, it’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no choice and no other way to make the torment stop. The children are sometimes called “obstinate” by therapists and parents who buy into the crazy, unbelievably misguided belief that kids are refusing to eat because they are, essentially, being manipulative little jerks. The children are blamed, their trauma and autonomy completely disregarded. Parents are pitted against children, forced to play coercive games. This is absolute insanity.

There are far better ways to wean children from tubes, to awaken their appetites, hearts, and minds. These methods are infinitely more effective and humane. They are based on respect and compassion, which every child needs and deserves! Beyond that, every child for whom it is safe (mainly, the many tube-fed kids whose initial issues are resolved) deserves to be given a chance to eat. For many families, weaning is never even discussed! Because the child is not eating orally. But why would they? Why would they suddenly enjoy eating when every three hours, formula is pumped directly into their stomach, sometimes only to come back up again due to nausea and rampant overfeeding? When Stella had her tube, our pediatrician said she’d just “turn it around.” As if by magic. That was never, ever going to happen.

I’ve been perusing blogs and boards of parents with tube-fed children and my goal has been to offer support whenever I think my experience with Stella could be relevant. It feels good to provide support and resources, to help bring about positive change based on such a negative experience. But I’m not sure I can do it anymore. There are too many heartbreaking stories of renowned hospitals directing parents to disregard their instincts and squash the dignity of their child. It’s overwhelming. I’ll start to type a reply to certain posts, ones that reveal that a child is being forced to eat in some fashion, only to delete it, because my thoughts are all over the place. My words too angry.  I wonder where to begin. How can I convince someone that the entire medical establishment is harming their child on a root level, rather than helping? There is too much ground to cover, too much fundamental education and changing of minds to do–more than can be conveyed in a comment box. I’m at a loss.

I have such compassion for the parents, yet feel such angst when I see the failure to question the clearly ineffective and detrimental status quo. You have to stand up for your child. No one else will. You have to call bullshit on doctors’ cavalier attitudes toward tube feeding, not to mention their lack of actual knowledge on the subject. You have to challenge therapists whose tactics perpetuate the feeding battle, rather than bringing it to a peaceful end.

But I know. I know these parents are ground down by the stress, loneliness, and sorrow that comes with not being able to nourish your own child—the nightmare that is tube feeding. I know from my own experience that some parents become so desperate that they no longer trust themselves and find themselves willing to follow whatever directions they’re given, perpetuating their own hell, despite the nagging voice inside that tells them it’s all wrong. Or who are tossed back and forth from one expert “opinion” to another, with no one ever offering a real plan for moving towards normalcy and health. Parents are victims of unnecessarily extended tube feeding as well, and the failure to recognize the deep trauma of both parent and child, and how it contributes to disordered feeding, is another gaping hole in the “care” received.

I have by now heard about, and even helped in some small way through this blog to bring about, dozens of successful tube weans. I know some children require tubes for survival. But many others are simply trapped with no visible exit. In particular, I am intimately familiar with three tube weaning success stories: that of my daughter Stella, and those of Zander and Heath, the children of women who have become dear friends. These amazing triumphs were achieved thanks to parental intuition, constant and fearless questioning, and plain old ignoring of bad medical advice, plus exhaustive research and the shaken but intact inner belief that if given a chance, “my child can eat.” These weans required a lot of belief and trust in the child, not the doctors. They required a process of “letting go.” This is hard to do, not only for parents, but for a broken health care system that insists on monitoring and controlling every milliliter pumped through the tube, in order to cover its ass, all while ignoring the impact on quality of life.

Thankfully, there is an alternative, explored in the video below. Upon viewing it, I cried. They weren’t happy tears in response to the wonderful, validating, rare, evidence-based wisdom on tube weaning that the video unveils. I bawled because the speaker, a child psychologist and tube weaning expert from Germany, describes a higher, enlightened quality of care given to children in his country—a standard and mentality that simply does not exist here. Unexpectedly, I was overwhelmed with grief. By and large, Stella did not receive the respectful, mindful, effective and individual care that she deserved. And thousands of children are needlessly suffering right now.

If you’re angry too, looking for a way out of tube feeding, or want to follow your desire to treat your child with more compassion during their feeding journey, please grab a cup of coffee and watch this eye-opening, heartening lecture given by child psychologist Markus Wilken. He has past, direct experience with the Graz method, which he’s incorporated into ongoing weaning and tube management work in hospitals and clinics in Germany. Astoundingly, Markus has successfully weaned a diverse set of over 400 children. Perhaps, within his presentation, you’ll find the encouragement you need to believe in yourself and your child. To live a tube-free life! You can do it. Your child can do it. It’s time to fight.

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Here’s the link (some find that removing the “mms” prefix is necessary for successful viewing):

mms://seattlechildrens.wm.internapcdn.net/seattlechildrens_vitalstream_com/Rehab_5-27-10.wmv

Hooray for Heath, his mom, and inspiring tube weaning success!

Mighty Heath

Meet Heath. Ain't he sweet?

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.)