Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Don't let feeding tube get in the way of fun

By Louise Kinross

Over the last year Jennifer Choi Han made 10 videos about family life with a child with severe disabilities who is fed real, blended food through a g-tube. The videos feature Andrew, 7, who has cerebral palsy, and his twin Eleanor, their sister Jane, 5, and brother Mikey, 3.

In the videos, the family, who live in Long Island, go to The Nutcracker ballet, visit a fall festival, spend a day at the beach, check out a candy store, go to a barbecue and meet Santa Claus. The videos show Andrew eating the family’s breakfast, after it’s blended, at home before leaving, and the meals his family feeds him while out, wherever they happen to be. The music is upbeat, the kids are happy, and Andrew is integrated into everything they do.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in 2012, Jennifer wrote a piece for BLOOM about how miserable life was when they were feeding Andrew formula prescribed by doctors. It exacerbated his reflux, and Andrew spent his days retching, vomiting, not sleeping and losing weight. He even stopped smiling. “He was so unhappy because he was so hungry and wasn’t sleeping and had many, many seizures,” Jennifer says. “I never expected to take him out in public places, to actually go out and enjoy being out. Our vacations were disasters.”

BLOOM interviewed Jennifer about her video series A Day In The Life with Cerebral Palsy and a G-tube and how much their life has changed since they switched Andrew to a diet of real, blended food.

BLOOM: Tell us a bit about Andrew.

Jennifer Choi Han: He has spastic quadriplegia and controlled epilepsy. He’s also blind and doesn’t speak. But we know when he’s happy and sad and when you’re around him, you learn his language. He’s a very giggly boy and he responds to touch and sound. He loves music and he loves people. When people talk to him he responds with moans, and the conversation goes back and forth like that. If he’s bored he’ll sigh. We go to church every Sunday and he always sighs in the middle of the service. His siblings play with him and sing with him. Right now the kids love the Troll soundtrack from Disney. It makes Andrew freak out in happiness and he’ll sing along and laugh and kick. Andrew loves school because he recognizes voices and is very sociable. He’s the happiest of our four children.

BLOOM: Why did you start your video series?

Jennifer Choi Han: For a very practical and utilitarian reason: I wanted to raise awareness that there’s something called a blenderized diet and I have a strong belief it should be a treatment option for severe reflux. It’s also a healthy way of living with a feeding tube. In my mind, it saved Andrew’s life. After the BLOOM article I received lots of comments on my blog and I knew people were going to the site because they wanted to do the blenderized diet. I had it tucked in my mind that one day I would make videos about how we did it. Recently I was ready because my kids were older and Andrew had been medically stable for a few years. I wanted to make videos that have a very warm and cheerful vibe.

BLOOM: They are fun and upbeat and full of happiness.


Jennifer Choi Han: Learning about Andrew’s brain damage was completely devastating. In my mind, it was the worst thing that could happen to a family. In his first years, Andrew was sad and miserable. I scoured online forums looking for stories of families and trying to predict what his future held. I watched three videos on YouTube and I cried my eyes out. One was of a little girl who was in a diaper prone on a mat, moaning, and people were watching her. Another was parents talking and sad music in the background.

What started off as practical videos shifted to ‘a day in the life’ videos that offer a narrative of hope about a child who’s happy and out and about, enjoying the world and seen by others.

BLOOM: Many of your videos are in New York City. Isn’t that a challenge for accessibility?

Jennifer Choi Han: It’s not super accessible, but it’s doable. When we go to the city we always make sure to drive and avoid crowded places. We go to big, spacious places. Touristy places tend to be more accessible. For example, Central Park is fairly accessible. We took Andrew to the ballet and he really enjoyed it because he loves music. We take Andrew to the pool regularly because kids with cerebral palsy are happiest in the water. Usually I research stuff like crazy before we go.

BLOOM: In one video you’re on the subway.

Jennifer Choi Han: That’s the recently built Second Avenue Subway line. It’s outrageously accessible with ramps and elevators and even a wheelchair boarding area by the conductor’s window. Unfortunately, the other lines aren't stroller or wheelchair friendly. When Andrew was younger I would check online to plan ahead, but even stations that were supposed to be accessible weren’t because elevators were broken or something hadn’t been updated. So we stopped using the subway.

BLOOM: You said you rarely see other people with disabilities when you go out.


Jennifer Choi Han: I suspect that’s because of the whole bathroom situation. There are not a lot of accessible bathrooms—unless you’re okay putting your loved one on the floor. We’re lucky at this point because Andrew is very small. We can change him in the car. Sometimes we carry a sheet and change him on a park bench while my husband or his siblings hold up the sheet for privacy. As Andrew gets older, the bathroom thing will become a big issue because I need to preserve his dignity.

BLOOM: In the videos, you feed Andrew in public, wherever you happen to be. Is that intentional?

Jennifer Choi Han: Yes. I feel very strongly that people with disabilities need to be seen. Disability is part of the human experience. I never see disabled people out and about, and I feel in order for the world to be more open and inclusive, and to not fear disability, everyone needs to see each other. When Andrew was young, I was very self-conscious about stares and about what I was doing, but now I’m not at all. I own this role we’ve taken on and I see the benefits.

We talk about the ‘Andrew effect.’ When we go out with Andrew, children come up and stare and ask questions like ‘What’s wrong with him?’ I love when they ask questions because I can help answer them. I’ll say ‘You know how you or I drink or eat with our mouth, and then it goes down our throat and into our belly? Well, Andrew’s mouth doesn’t work well, so his food and drink goes straight into his belly.’ If they ask why, I say ‘Andrew has a boo boo on his brain, so he’s not able to use his mouth as well.’ It makes so much sense to a little kid. There are also lots of kid-friendly parts of feeding Andrew, so I’ll ask ‘Do you want to help?’ They can put in the water or hold something for me.

My youngest child, Mikey, is a ham and he’s very perceptive of other people’s reactions. If strangers stare, he’ll go up and hold Andrew’s hand, cuddle with him or kiss him and sing songs.

BLOOM: Feeding Andrew looks easy in the videos. But isn’t there a lot of planning? How do you make sure the food doesn’t go bad?

Jennifer Choi Han:
The crazy thing is how easy it is. I hate cooking. My three-year-old could tell you how to feed Andrew. When I first started out, I was taking home-made blends out, and that requires bringing ice packs and keeping the food cold. But now that there are pre-made, blended products on the market, we don’t need to pack ice or worry about food spoiling. These products are shelf stable for two years.

So if we’re at the beach, I’ll open a pre-blended package that might have salmon, oats and squash in it. The only supplies you need are a syringe, extension tube and a plunger to push the food through. I take a zip lock bag and put one meal plus all of the supplies, including bottled water, to flush and clean with. If we’re out for the entire day I’ll have four meals bags. It’s not onerous at all. In fact, it’s much more onerous getting snacks for my other children.

The two premade products I use are called Real Food Blends and Functional Formularies.

BLOOM: How have people reacted to the videos?

Jennifer Choi Han: When I made my first two-minute video, which was about how I bolus real food through a feeding tube, I expected maybe 100 views. Within the first week there were 1,000 views. Now there are over 6,000 on that video. People started to private message me to thank me, ask me questions and tell me how life-changing the diet had been for their child, which was very gratifying. My first 'day in the life' video has over 11,000 views. Who would have thought a video about cerebral palsy and feeding tubes would be viewed over 11,000 times? But the focus has moved from feeding tubes to a well-lived life.

BLOOM: You always look relaxed and energetic in the videos. Isn’t it physically exhausting managing Andrew’s needs and your other children’s needs
?

Jennifer Choi Han: There are two reasons I look quite refreshed: Andrew is happy and stable and I have a lot of resources. My mother lives with us and I consider her a primary caregiver as well. We also have a full-time nanny on top of that, and my husband is super hands-on and helpful. I work full-time as a teacher and my workplace is a two-minute drive from home. My husband is a physician, so with our two incomes, we have a lot of options.

It takes a village, and I have a village. A lot of parents, especially in the United States, don’t have a village. They don’t have resources, and that’s where things fall apart. When I strike people as refreshed and cheerful, I’m quick to tell them it’s because I have time to myself. My situation is not available to a lot of families. With our new administration, I’ve been taking part in a postcard campaign and making calls to legislators about health care.

I never could have imagined we would be at this place during those hard, early years. I really like my life now. I really like being Andrew’s mom and I love Andrew to pieces. It’s very therapeutic for me to make these videos and to view them.




1 comments:

Jennifer, I fully support your mission to promote health through a well-balanced blended diet. My daughter has been on a blended g-tube diet for 11-12 years now and is amazingly healthy. Despite the physical issues she battles as part of her syndrome, her immune system is strong. Her doctors and we fully believe this can be directed credited to the excellent nutrition her diet provides. From your pictures, we can see that your son has benefited from the excellent nutrition you are feeding him.

Keep up your good work. There is joy and health to be had even in places we were never expected to find it.