It was, literally, a first of its kind graduation for the state of Alabama.
On Friday, November 7, 2014, 4-year-old Liberty Bird “Birdie” Bower of Coaling (near Tuscaloosa) became the first child to complete the Intensive Feeding Program (IFP) at Children’s of Alabama.
IFP helps infants, toddlers and adolescents overcome problems feeding and drinking often associated with developmental delays or serious illness. It is the first and only program of its kind in Alabama and one of only a handful of similar programs in the United States, according to its director, Michelle Mastin, PhD.
Birdie’s graduation was quite the celebration – complete with presents, happy guests and even a mortarboard. But unlike a typical pre-school graduation, this one was symbolic of a new chance for a healthy, happy, independent life for Birdie.
It had not been an easy road for the brave little girl and her parents. “She and her twin were born without warning on April 3, 2010, at 22 weeks gestation,” says her mother, Brittany Bower. “We were completely unprepared, and we were scared.”
Birdie weighed in at just a little more than a pound. (Her twin did not survive.) Because of her extreme prematurity, Birdie suffered from a host of problems, including a brain bleed, partial complex seizures and underdeveloped lungs. She needed surgeries for a heart defect, retinopathy of prematurity and ruptured intestines.
Initially, Birdie was hospitalized at DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa, but she was transferred to Children’s in May because of her life-threatening intestinal condition. She spent six months in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit before she was big enough and strong enough for her parents to take her home for the first time.
But even then, Birdie had to rely on a gastrostomy (feeding) tube for nourishment. It would take three and a half years – and the help of the Intensive Feeding Program – to wean her off the feeding tube.
“During the eight weeks of the Intensive Feeding Program, we were there at Children’s for each of Birdie’s four daily feedings,” Brittany recalls. Each meal marked an incremental step toward eating without a feeding tube.
Dr. Reed Dimmit, director of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology & Nutrition at Children’s, was a part of Birdie’s care from the first day she arrived at the hospital. “He has always been amazing,” Brittany says. “I don’t think Birdie would have survived without Dr. Dimmit and the care she got at Children’s.”
Today, Birdie returns to Children’s only for Intensive Feeding Program follow-up visits and for seizure monitoring and treatment with Pediatric Neurology.
Brittany can only marvel at how far her daughter has come. “Birdie is curious, caring and energetic,” she says. “Her whole life is an achievement. She’s always been a fighter, and that has helped her get through all the numerous problems she’s had. Our dream is for her to have a normal and happy life.”