Like most 19-month-olds, Owen Marinkovich is eager to explore anything and everything with his mouth. But unlike his peers, until recently, Owen showed little interest in swallowing food, the result of a lifetime of negative experiences with feeding tubes, vents and other medical equipment in his mouth. A micro preemie born at just 24 weeks gestation, Owen has already overcome a multitude of obstacles, showing courage befitting of his name’s meaning, “young warrior.” But as he continued to experience difficulties with food, his mom, Tatum, sought help from Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare’s Feeding Clinic.
An initial evaluation determined Owen was able to eat – a critical first step. However, like many kids with complex medical histories, eating no longer came naturally to him. Negative experiences had also impressed upon Owen the need for control – although he’d put anything in his mouth, no one else, including his mom, could do so. Through weekly therapy sessions reinforced with at-home practice, Tatum and occupational therapist Leah Hall began the step-by-step process of helping Owen see food as fun, pleasant – and, importantly, safe.
Knowing Owen loved using his mouth to explore, Leah suggested he practice with high-flavor foods like gummy worms, suckers, beef jerky and chips—items that would help him experience flavors in a non-threatening way, without the expectation of chewing or swallowing. She then encouraged him to try “meltable” foods, like cheese puffs, which would dissolve quickly in his mouth without much need for chewing. Leah also taught Tatum to dip Owen’s favorite pacifiers and toys in baby food, helping him to discover new textures on objects he already enjoyed.
As weeks progressed, so did Owen—first mouthing spoons of baby food himself, then allowing mom to feed him. Recently, using the sign language symbol for “eat,” Owen requested food for the first time. “It made my week!” recalls Tatum of the milestone.
In just 2 months of therapy at Gillette’s Feeding Clinic, Owen has gone from being fed exclusively via g-tube to eating several containers of baby food each day. He’s exploring different textures—including crunchy and puffy foods—and discovering new flavors. All of this comes just in time for Owen to participate in Thanksgiving for the first time ever. For a family that’s been apart on far too many holidays due to Owen’s hospitalizations, it’s especially meaningful.
“On previous holidays Owen has either needed to stay back from family celebrations, or he wasn’t strong enough to sit at the table, or he wasn’t eating,” recalls Tatum. “This Thanksgiving, he’ll be able to sample things like mashed and sweet potatoes, and physically be present as we enjoy the meal. What an amazing thing, as his mom, to begin to think of holidays as a family activity. It really is something to be thankful for.”
Tatum likens Leah to a coach helping to guide her in playing Owen’s “game” of discovering foods. “Owen and I have to practice, and ultimately play the game, but it’s a lot easier with someone who can coach us minute by minute, even second by second,” she says.