My youngest son, Emmett, swallowed a button battery on the day we were supposed to be celebrating his first birthday. Not only did it change our lives forever, but it also changed the significance of birthdays for our family.
We weren’t sure that he would see his next birthday and that uncertainty made us appreciate every subsequent birthday we celebrate with him even more.
Each new birthday brings a new milestone, a new step forward in his recovery from the accident. Last year was a biggie. It was his 4th birthday and not only was he able to eat birthday cake for the very first time, but he obtained the ability to swallow food.
Allow me to digress and I’ll tell you how. Because the button battery burned two holes in his esophagus, Emmett was unable to eat by mouth for two years following the accident and received nutrition solely from a g-tube. On December 6, 2012 Emmett underwent a surgical procedure called colonic interposition, performed by the Esophageal Center at Cincinnati Children’s.
This 14-hour procedure replaced his esophagus with a portion of his colon, giving him the ability to use his esophagus, and thus, swallow. To give you an idea of how significant this milestone was, I wrote a blog post last year about this first phase of his recovery.
Emmett was so excited to eat his 4th birthday cake and we counted our blessings for another milestone achieved: the ability to swallow food.
On his 5th birthday, which we just celebrated yesterday, he got to do something that I wasn’t sure he would ever be able to do: blow out his own birthday candles. Through his mouth.
Why is this significant? Since the button battery also damaged his airway, Emmett has needed the assistance of a tracheostomy to help him breathe. He has not been able to sneeze, cough, or blow out of his mouth until now.
Utilizing his airway is an accomplishment that he achieved only a few weeks ago. We traveled back to Cincinnati Children’s for the second phase of his recovery, where he had an upper airway reconstructive procedure called a laryngotracheoplasty. Dr. de Alarcon, along with the airway reconstruction team, surgically inserted a portion of his rib to open his airway and separate his vocal cords, which had been almost completely shut and paralyzed from the button battery injury. Additionally, they put a stent in between the vocal cords to keep them from collapsing and to give the rib graft some support.
Two weeks after the surgery, the team removed the stent and because Emmett’s airway was functioning so well, Dr. de Alarcon felt comfortable putting a cap on his tracheostomy. This allowed Emmett to breathe out of his mouth and nose for the first time since the accident.
Capping the tracheostomy, along with his newly reconstructed airway, gave him better access to the lungs he has been working so hard to rehabilitate. After the accident his lungs collapsed and he had chronic pneumonia for a year, which led to scarring in his lungs. Dr. Wood, his pulmonologist, recommended a regimen of exercise twice a day for 15 minutes to help his lungs grow and expand, as well as vest therapy. This therapy vibrates the lungs and allowed him to break up and cough out the gunk he was unable to do on his own.
So here we are today, following the second phase of his recovery, with a newly energetic boy. The 50+ surgeries, procedures, therapies, have all led us to this moment and I couldn’t be happier. The difference in his stamina, activity level and spirit is night and day.
Before when he spoke with the tracheostomy, he would have to take breaths in between words. Now with it capped, he can say a complete sentence in one breath. Before, he would have to rest on the couch after doing his 15 minutes of physical activity.
Now, nothing is slowing him down. He’s riding bikes, playing fetch and running after the dog, and keeping us all on our toes.
But most significantly, he blew out his 5th birthday candles for the first time in his life, all by himself. The smile on his face melted my heart. It is such a small action that holds great significance in our family. It is a symbol of just how far he has progressed this year and his overall recovery.
So what milestone will his 6th birthday bring next year? If he continues to progress as well as he has been, he might be able to have the tracheostomy removed completely. And his dream to play soccer like his big brother might become a reality.