The reluctant expert

I belong to a receptive and supportive club which I joined unknowingly. At various times, our members are experts and novices, advisers and information seekers. My alleged area of expertise has nothing to do with my university education or employment history, and everything to do with raising my son, Jacob (above centre).

I am a reluctant expert on gastrostomy feeding tubes, also known as g-tubes, and all their accoutrements. G-tubes are surgically implanted holes in people’s abdomens where tubes are inserted so that liquid nutrition and medication can be fed directly into the patients’ stomachs, bypassing their mouths. I’m not proud of being so well informed about this particular topic but I amassed this information because I had no choice. My son, Jacob, has had a g-tube since shortly after his birth, almost nine years ago.

Recently, I found myself speaking with a scared and overwhelmed mom whose child was abruptly shoved into the world of ‘alternative’ feeding. During our conversation I remembered the feeling of relief I experienced the first time I was introduced to a member of what I have termed the Parents of Children with Medical Issues Club (PCMIC). And I recalled how comforted I felt to know I wasn’t alone. If I was able to provide some insight and information to this mom whose world was only recently turned upside down, I welcomed the opportunity.

When Jacob was born, he had difficulty breathing. At just a few minutes old, he was placed on a ventilator and started down a very long road of medical battles for his life.

When I went into the neonatal intensive care unit to feed him on his second morning, I was surprised to see my tiny son with yet another tube running out of his little body. This one was a two foot long naso-gastric (NG) tube coming out of his nose, taped in place to his soft cheek with a white bandage that covered almost the entire right side of his face. The nurse, noticing my appalled reaction, explained that this tube would function to deliver my pumped breast milk directly into his stomach because he couldn’t swallow without choking. In shock from the unexpected complications following Jacob’s birth, I watched as the milk slid into his body, drip by drip.

When Jacob was six weeks old and still in the hospital, the doctors approached us about having a hole surgically cut into his stomach so that a tube could directly administer his nutrition, a more permanent solution than the NG tube.

When I saw Jacob post-surgery I barely recognized my little guy. Since his second day of life, he had a giant white gauze-like bandage covering half his face. Walking over to his crib, I saw an adorable little baby with a full head of dark brown hair and pudgy cheeks. Two of them. Seeing all of him was the first positive thing about this surgery. I could kiss both sides of his face and feel his warm cheeks.

I learned how to care for my son. I received intense, on-the-job medical training from the nurses during Jake’s three-month hospital stay. My education was from trained professionals. But I felt isolated – I didn’t know anyone who had a child like mine, one who struggled each day to breathe, to move, to grow. I was alone.

Three years later, Jacob’s medical issues had stabilized and taking care of his needs had long become routine. Through mutual friends, I was given a phone number of a parent with a child a few years older than Jacob who had similar medical challenges. With the hope of gaining some insight from a more experienced parent, I called Jeff.

One evening a few days later, Jeff and I were sitting in my kitchen discussing our common experiences and struggles as my husband, Andrew, mixed Jake’s meals for the following 24 hours – six containers of infant formula, each one with a different ratio of powdered formula to sterile water. When Jeff noticed how time consuming and labor-intensive Jacob’s meal-preparation was, he explained what his son ate and how much easier the process could be. Jeff shared pertinent information with us that nobody else had. The medical professionals didn’t hold back these details on purpose, they just didn’t know them.

I’ve learned that the best source of information is other parents who are in similar situations. My initial contact with Jeff didn’t happen until Jacob was three years old and we had been struggling on our own for his entire life. I now know how helpful it is to seek out parents who have been through what I’m experiencing. The hardest part is finding the first person. After that, it gets easier. The PCMIC is a group that anyone with a child with challenges can join and benefit from the extensive and assorted experiences of others who are willing to share.

When I was given the opportunity to be the first experienced parent to speak to the mom new to my world, I welcomed the chance. I wanted to be able to do for her what Jeff did for me. I wanted to show her how supportive our club is.