Words by Grant McArthur (Herald Sun)
Photographs by David Caird (Herald Sun)
Every mouthful Dougie Christie swallows amazes his parents and doctors.
Born with a rare condition where his mouth was not connected to his stomach, the Brunswick boy faced a childhood punctuated by dozens of operations, complications and the need to have his throat constantly stretched.
But a remarkably successful Royal Children’s Hospital surgery has seen the now 15-month-old happily doing — and eating — everything other children enjoy.
“He is eating like a gluttonous teenager, he is shoving the food down. It’s amazing,” said Dougie’s mum, Ruth Oliphant.
“He loves his pasta, loves green peas … he eats everything.”
Like one in 4000 other babies, Dougie was born with oesophageal atresia, a congenital condition where his oesophagus stops short of his stomach. But he had an extremely rare form known as “long gap”, where the distance was too great to be immediately reconnected.
Dougie also had his swallowing tube connected to his breathing tube, putting him in danger of drowning if he drank milk.
RCH surgeon Associate Professor Warwick Teague undertook the first procedure, to loop a long stitch between the top of Dougie’s oesophagus and the disconnected section near his stomach, four days after he was born in May last year.
By tightening the stitch, Prof Teague then stretched the two ends like rubber bands so they met in the middle. However the tension was so great they could not be joined.
Over six weeks the tension gradually decreased and the RCH team was able to connect the ends.
Further operations twice removed the bridge between Dougie’s feeding and breathing tubes, and doctors were stunned when scans later revealed a normal, fully functioning oesophagus.
While the RCH specialises in treating between 20 and 25 oesophageal atresia cases each year, few are missing sections as long as Dougie, and almost none around the world have such stunning success. Friday marked a year since Dougie’s last operation, virtually unheard of in such cases.
“The majority of these children do not do well, which is why Dougie is such an important story,” Prof Teague said.
“He’s had two operations on his oesophagus — other children would have had 20-25 anaesthetics, multiple stretches, lots of complications. He is getting on with eating and he is not being set back by repeated trips to hospital and repeated anaesthetics, or a life-defining experience due to oesphogeal atresia.”