A Blocked Tube

Ben’s gastrostomy tube blocked last week. I’m not sure why – perhaps a rogue lump of crushed medication – but it’s normally not a big deal. We keep a spare button at home and I can replace it easily. I do this roughly every three months anyway, and have been doing for the last seven years.

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(Unrelated selfie of us all having lunch at a service station to be thankful Ben’s tube was working fine on our nine hour journey from London to Lancashire over the summer.)

Ben doesn’t eat or drink. He has a gastrostomy which means he has a ‘button’ in his tummy which we connect a tube to on the outside and then conveniently push fluids, food and medication directly into his stomach on the inside. It is a simple yet amazing piece of medical engineering which allows us to feed him while bypassing his mouth.

The button is kept secure by a little inflatable balloon which sits inside his stomach and prevents it falling out. To change the button I can use a syringe to suck the water out of the balloon, except last week the valve that I connect the syringe to had fallen out. We found it in Ben’s clothes and replaced it, but it was bust. Not being able to deflate the balloon meant the blocked button was stuck there, which meant Ben couldn’t have the remainder of his breakfast nor any other food or water until we sorted it out.

These are the kinds of unexpected situations we find ourselves in. Compared to his button being tugged out of his stomach in Sussex and our only replacement being in London, or the horror of needing to reinsert nasogastric tubes when Ben was a small baby, this was not that big a deal. We haven’t had to do an A&E run for a while which has been good, and this wasn’t something we were very worried about. Ben was fine as long as we entertained him. We live close to a hospital so we packed some electronic entertainment devices and headed there to find someone who knew how to solve our problem. We took Max with us since his school is close by and reassured him that everything was fine. He didn’t really believe us because it’s not that normal to accompany your brother to hospital before you go to school.

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As we arrived at A&E, nice and early so mercifully quiet, James said, ‘I bet there’s some really simple low tech solution to this’. I called the specialist feeding nurse whose number I still had from when she had first taught us how to feed Ben by tube and as we were called into triage she was telling me we just needed to chop the button in half with scissors just next to Ben’s tummy. The balloon would deflate and go into his digestive system as if it was food, the stoma would be clear, and I would be able to pop a new button in. I explained this to the A&E nurses, and then to the doctor, who had never come across this problem before. Within twenty minutes, just as a nurse was checking I was happy to cut the button myself, the feeding nurse appeared with some scissors. She cut, I pushed a new button in, and we were back in business. Next time we’ll know what to do.

As I got Ben back in his wheelchair, the feeding nurse reminded me that when Ben was a few months old there had been a problem with his nasogastric tube and I had called her. She had been at home, trapped by one of the numerous snowstorms that were the hallmark of Ben’s early months, but talked me through what I needed to do. 

I had forgotten that occasion, but I remember calling her. I always called her when we had a problem with his feeding tubes, because of all the people we met in those early months she was the one that could offer us the most helpful advice. She knew all that we needed to know about feeding Ben and always answered the phone. When I was struggling to pump breastmilk she put me in touch with another mother who had been through the same. When the end fell off his feeding tube she explained how to fit a new one. When Ben’s gastrostomy was infected she would arrange for it to be swabbed. She was the person we needed at that time. Most other people we saw then either never dealt with a gastrostomy, or did occasionally whereas feeding tubes were this nurse’s bread and butter.

And now, almost ten years later, she solved our problem again whilst commenting on how big Ben is. He’s big because we’ve been feeding him though all of these various tubes which she helped us to feel were manageable. 

James had delivered Max to school mid-button chop so we phoned the school office so someone could tell him that Ben was totally fine, then James drove Ben to school. Crisis efficiently averted. There was a simple solution. Hurrah for the people who know the solutions and always answer the phone.

Feeding Ben food

Ben can’t eat or drink. He tried really hard to learn and we all spent a lot of time on it for 18 months but by age two he really wasn’t enjoying it. He got annoyed at the sight of a spoon and the amount he was eating was tailing off.

Drinking had been a problem right from the beginning. His dysphagia (difficulty swallowing) meant he found sucking from a bottle really difficult – if the automatic reflex to co-ordinate sucking, swallowing and breathing is messed up, it is incredibly hard to learn. The human anatomy at the back of the throat is an awful design and Ben just couldn’t get the hang of it. We spent hours trying to feed him by bottle, and later by cup but it was never enough and he was discharged from hospital with a nasogastric tube which we put milk through (the tube went up through his nose and then down in to his tummy).

At just over four months we started weaning in the hope that eating thicker textures would be easier than drinking and be more likely to stay down in his tummy. This was also hard work for Ben and he did incredibly well given the difficulties but he never got close to eating enough food to grow. Meanwhile he had constant and painful gastro-oesophageal reflux.

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So at six months old Ben had a PEG inserted in to his tummy, allowing us to give milk through a tube straight in to his stomach. When he was two this was changed to a button.

If you start out from the position that you have a small child and they have to have a tube inserted in to their tummy, which means even when you have given them a bath and they are lying on a towel all perfect and clean they will still have a tube dangling from their abdomen, this might be upsetting. Which it was in some ways. But if you start from the position that your child is unable to feed and you have spent six months putting milk through a tube in their nose which everyone can see, and keeps falling off/out, and their cheek under the sticky plaster is red raw, and when the tube needs replacing you have to get someone (sometimes your poor neighbour) to bind your screaming child in a towel and hold them down while you push a tube up their nose and down their throat, and every time you feed them you have to do a pH test to check the tube is still in their tummy and you aren’t about to pour milk in to their lungs… if you find yourself in that position, then a permanent tube in their tummy seems like a great idea.

James and I have fond memories of a holiday in Scotland when Ben was 18 months old when he could eat half a yoghurt pot for lunch. That was the highpoint of his eating and once we returned to London the combination of physical difficulty and chronic reflux meant he was less and less keen to eat food. To be honest, we were all weary. There are only so many hours you can spend mixing various mashed and pureed foods with baby rice and spooning them into an unwilling child before you feel there are better ways to spend time. Eventually we got to the point of not offering Ben oral food at all.

That gastrostomy tube is a lifeline – it is the reason that Ben is thriving and growing. It represents a choice to spend time reading books and enjoying ourselves rather than trying for hours to eat enough food and drink enough fluid and the inevitable chest infections that would result.

So for the first three years of his life, Ben was largely fed milk – various hypoallergenic, cows-milk-free and enhanced formulas that began to arrive in big boxes every month. As far as dieticians and general medical opinion is concerned, once a child has a tube they are then fed special milk. So on the one hand you have a typical four year old who eats some cereal, a banana, some chicken and maybe a cake. On the other hand you have a tube-fed four year old who is supposed to have 240ml Nutrini Energy milk for breakfast, 240ml Nutrini Energy milk for lunch and 240ml Nutrini Energy milk for supper.

A few years ago I came across ‘blended diet‘ (BD) which essentially means pureeing food with enough liquid to be able to push it through the gastrostomy tube. I am a natural law-abider (the kind of person who feels uncomfortable going in to a pub to use the loo if I haven’t bought a drink, who scrupulously observes any and every queue) and so having found an academic journal article that suggested children had experienced less reflux and eaten more while being fed puree rather than milk, I approached each of our doctors and asked their view before I started. They were generally a bit bemused but didn’t tell me not to. We started putting Ella’s Kitchen baby food pouches through Ben’s gastrostomy tube.

It’s not a complicated idea – we followed principles similar to when you are weaning a baby. We gradually made more complicated purees and replaced quantities of milk for boluses of puree. Our dietician made clear that she could not advocate this type of feeding (she is prevented from doing so by her professional organisation) but was happy to discuss principles with me. She analysed our recipes to see how much protein, carbs etc Ben was getting and suggested supplements.

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Ben is now fed entirely puree. Instead of being pumped full of high calorie milk with a 12-month shelf life he is fed a bespoke recipe of roast chicken, homemade chicken stock, tahini and avocado whizzed up in a high-speed, super-powered (obscenely expensive) blender. Since we have been doing this he vomits less, has fewer reflux symptoms and has been putting on weight (albeit slowly, but that’s always been the case). We add calorie and vitamin supplements to the blends. Doctors comment on how well he looks and how sensible an idea this is.

Through this process, I have rediscovered some of the mothering instinct that should be part of feeding your child. There is no pleasure in hooking up milk to a pump, but there is real and tangible satisfaction to be gained in roasting a chicken, making stock and feeding it to your child. There is enormous joy to be found in buying blueberries in the morning and giving them to your child in the afternoon; to seeing your child grow as a result of the food you have made with your hands even if it doesn’t arrive in their tummy via their mouth.

Health professionals (mainly dieticians and nurses) are concerned about this method of feeding – they are apparently worried the tube will get blocked (this has never happened to us), that there are problems with food hygiene (which the rest of the population manages when feeding their kids). They are uncomfortable that you can’t be sure how many calories are in blended foods. These concerns are such that our nearest respite centre refuses to give children puree via gastrostomy, and therefore Ben can’t stay there without us being there to feed him (which with the best will in the world, is not exactly respite).

It seems to me that a model of care where children automatically have long-life milk for every meal is better suited to those analysing calorie requirements and setting up pumps than it is to the recipient. I resent the idea that most parents feed their children what they want, with some public health encouragement to maximise vegetables, but us feeding Ben kale and quinoa rather than milk full of maltodextrin is somehow rogue. The world is upside-down when goody-two-shoes-Jess is seen as a rebel.

We all make parenting decisions for our kids. Our choice is to feed our son actual food.