As my 21st birthday approaches (less than 2 weeks away!), I have been reflecting a lot on all that has changed this year and how crazy my journey with chronic illnesses has been. My life is so different from what I used to imagine it would be at this “milestone.” I never could have predicted the many things that have shaped me into who I am today, but I’ve made it another year and that’s something.
When I was younger, I always imagined my 21st birthday would be celebrated with food, friends, family, and of course, my first legal drink. I figured at this point in life I would be in college studying and living like a college student. I got one year in at UVA before taking medical leave; I am still working on getting back two years later. A part of me still feels like I am a first year at UVA, yet I see all of my friends getting ready to finish their third year! I can’t believe it.
This year, my illnesses have progressed to the point where I’m not able to intake almost anything orally, I have trouble even tolerating my tube feeds, and most days I spend much of my time in bed. My migraines make me extremely sensitive to sound and light so I get over stimulated very easily. I am 100% dependent on my feeding tube and my port for nutrition and hydration and I am on around the clock medications to try to control nausea and pain. My symptoms and lack of energy make it hard to plan ahead and make it so that I’m most comfortable just being at home.
My 21st birthday won’t be celebrated with food or alcohol. I likely won’t see friends or have any sort of “party.” My mother does like to try to be sneaky, so if you hear of any secret plans, feel free to inform me. I’m not a huge fan of surprises 😉 My birthdays now are usually a quiet affair celebrated with just my family. I don’t tell you this to complain, this is just how it is; for me, simple and peaceful is usually just right. Since I can’t eat and my energy levels are extremely low, I don’t require much. Chronic illnesses steal a lot from you, but they don’t have to prohibit you from having fun or enjoying special events.
Although my 21st birthday is not what I would have imagined it to be, and my life has taken some unexpected turns, I feel blessed just to be here and to have an incredible family here to help make the day as happy and celebratory as possible. My illnesses have taught me to be so appreciative and thankful for all of the small things in every day, and I know my birthday will be wonderful, even without cake or alcohol 😉
This week is Feeding Tube Awareness Week. As part of that, I decided to write a blog post about my journey as a “tubie.”
I got my first feeding tube in March of 2015. I had been battling with gastroparesis for just over a year at that point and was in my first year of college at UVA. Although typically you try a feeding tube before you resort to TPN (total parenteral nutrition—IV nutrition), I had already been on TPN for three months before this. Because I was hospitalized in December right around final exams and was supposed to return to school away from home, my doctors had placed a picc line in December in hopes that it would be short term and it would allow me to remain at school. However, when that line got infected in March and TPN was not working well, we decided to go ahead with a feeding tube.
My hospital does a short-term trial run with an NJ (nasojejunal) tube before placing a long term GJ (gastrojejunostomy) tube surgically. For me this meant a two hospital stays, one for the trial run during which I had my NJ tube, a tube placed through my nose and down past my stomach into my intestine where we hoped I could tolerate feeds. Having this tube placed was one of the most uncomfortable procedures I had experienced up to that point. I was not sedated or medicated at all aside from some lidocaine ointment and they stuck the tube down my nose, past my throat and into my esophagus while I was choking and gagging, my nose bleeding, tears streaming down my face, and they kept telling me to sip on water and swallow and just hold on it’ll be over soon. Some people tolerate it fine, especially people without gag refluxes, but for me it was miserable. I could hardly talk or swallow for the two days they made me keep it in. So shout out to my many friends who have multiple, long-term NJ tubes, I don’t know how you do it.
The second hospital stay was for my surgery. They decided to place a low profile, mickey GJ button tube. I was lucky that I still saw my pediatric doctors, because they use these tubes on children and I am small enough to fit into them. Often, adults get long, dangling tubes called PEGJ tubes. My surgery was able to be done laparoscopically, but they placed the wrong size tube so the pain was much more than anticipated and we stayed in the hospital for a five days to try to manage that. I had to keep that tube in for 6 weeks for the tract to heal before switching it out for the right size and finally getting some relief.
I stayed in school for that semester anticipating that my feeding tube would improve my quality of life; in many ways, it did. However, my gastroparesis continued to progress and I had to make the decision to take time off from UVA and stay home the next fall. Although my feeds did help me gain some of my strength back, I didn’t end up tolerating them as well as we had hoped. It’s been quite a journey.
For a while I was able to get in almost 1,200 calories by tube every night. Because of my chronic fatigue and the amount of time I spend in bed, that was almost enough to get me by and I was still able to take in a few hundred calories by mouth. Over the first year or so, my tube feeding rate slowed down by about 40% and it took me much longer to get in what I needed and I often wasn’t able to finish feeds over night. But still, I was able to supplement some of what I needed by eating a few of my “safe” foods—potatoes, squash, simple carbs.
Other parts of tube life include daily maintenance like keeping drainage clean, flushing the tube every couple of hours so it doesn’t clog, and changing tubie pads or gauze. I deal with bloating, pain, and changes in how my tube has affected my self confidence and body image as well as adapting to how little control I have over what goes into my body.
I also have to get my tube changed out every 3-6 months or every time it flips into my stomach or clogs. I can tell my tube has flipped into my stomach when my medications and feeds make me sick. When this happens, I have to schedule a time to get my tube fixed. When it is clogged, I have to call UVA and ask them to order a new tube. Sometimes it takes up to a week for them to get a new one and I go that long without receiving my feeds. (That happens to be the case this week!) I don’t get sedated for these tube swaps– some doctors use sedation, others don’t, mine just happens to be one who doesn’t. I get them done in radiology under imaging. They know me pretty well down there. It is an uncomfortable procedure but usually only takes between 30-60 minutes.
I’m about to hit my two year mark with my feeding tube and I now only tolerate a rate of 50ml an hour. That is almost half of what my goal rate was when I got my tube. My original diagnosis was gastroparesis, or paralysis of the stomach, but now my diagnosis has changed to Digestive Tract Paralysis (DTP) which means my dysmotility has moved into my lower GI system which makes tube feeding much more difficult. My colon is now greatly affected and my intestines are also delayed.
I recently switched formulas to a blended food formula in hopes that I will tolerate it better and it will make my body feel more human-like than my old formula that was full of preservatives and sugar. Sadly, I am not able to get in enough formula to gain weight. At this time, I also do not have any “safe foods” that I can intake orally to use to supplement my tube feeding. Because of this, my doctors talk about alternative options that could be in my future.
My tube saves my life every day. I rely on my tube and my port for 100% of my nutrition and hydration now. I can’t say I’m always thrilled about tube life, but I wouldn’t be here without it and I am so thankful for it. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask!