It was just another typical day for School of the Osage freshman Alec Hebblethwaite when he decided to eat some crackers.
However, the experience was not an enjoyable one that day in April of 2017 as he proceeded to choke and took a trip to the emergency room where doctors determined he had scratched his esophagus. What transpired over the following months was just as unpleasant as his esophagus would lead him on a journey that required him to fight for his life.
Multiple surgeries, a period of 106 straight days in the hospital and weekly doctor visits to keep his esophagus stretched and open became a reality that the young freshman and his family could never have imagined.
“We had no idea. Every once in a while he would choke, but we always thought it was just from him speed eating and talking while he was eating,” said his mother Kasey Hunter. “We had no idea this was ever going to happen.”
According to family friend Jeanette Zaroor, who provided an extensive and detailed timeline of Hebblethwaite’s struggle, the next incident came on May 21 when Hebblethwaite choked on a bite of a sandwich and the ensuing swallow study determined his esophagus was now torn. Two days later, he was scheduled to have surgery to repair his esophagus, but the procedure could not be carried out because he was septic and there was too much infection in his chest. It was then that Hebblethwaite had his first two chest tubes put in to act as a drain as well as a feeding tube as he was admitted into the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU).
“That was really scary because they were supposed to go in and fix his esophagus, but when they opened him up there was so much infection that it became very touchy for a few days,” Hunter recalled.
In early June Hebblethwaite received the first of a couple of blood transfusions and required more surgery to have larger chest tubes put in because the originals were both clogged. Later that month, another surgery took place to insert an 8-centimeter stint in his esophagus to help it heal.
But the problems continued.
In early July, Hebblethwaite was septic again and was admitted back into PICU. Some chest tubes were taken out while others were put in due to clogging issues and once his stint from his esophagus was removed, a new one was put in because there was still a leak. It was later determined that he had a chyle leak, a type of pleural effusion, which is an excess fluid that accumulates in the fluid-filled space that surrounds the lungs.
In August, a CT scan showed an infected and inflamed gallbladder, which required a drain. Surgery was scheduled for September 1 to take it out, but it could not be removed until October 19 because there was still too much infection and inflammation.
Hebblethwaite was finally released from the hospital and able to go home on September 3 after 106 straight days of treatment and careful observation and was able to return to school in October.
“It has been challenging and very scary. There were multiple surgeries where we did not know what the outcome was going to be,” Hunter said of everything that has transpired over the past year.
“You find out who really loves you when something like this happens.”
And Hebblethwaite and his family have not endured this struggle alone.
An online GoFundMe page was created for Hebblethwaite and School of the Osage’s high school PTSA and “Dude Be Nice Club” have both organized donation efforts that have included the selling of $5 bracelets to raise awareness with the hashtag #TeamAlec displayed on them.
“We are constantly working to teach our students about the importance of serving their community,” Osage Assistant Principal Staci Johnson said. “So it is rewarding to see students helping each other through challenging situations, whether through donating their time, money or encouragement.”
According to the school, because individual clubs and outside organizations have coordinated the selling of bracelets and delivering of donations, it is not clear how much funds have been raised at this time or how long donation efforts will continue. However, Johnson said the school will continue to assist the Hebblethwaite family any way they can.
“Anytime we are made aware of a student health concern, we ensure that the student’s academic needs are met. In addition, we make every effort to connect families to additional resources they may need,” Johnson stated.
“We are thankful for the many local organizations, churches and individuals who partner with our district to provide aid to students. In working with families in need, an open line of communication between students, families and our community resources is vital to making sure those needs are met.”
Hunter is certainly glad for that to be the case.
“I cannot thank our communities enough. They have shown us a lot of support throughout the summer and recently through the holidays, it has been very touching,” she remarked. “I do appreciate everything that they’ve done.”
Unfortunately for Hebblethwaite and his family, the struggle continues.
On November 2, he was diagnosed with eosinophilic esophagitis. According to the Mayo Clinic, it is a chronic immune system disease where eosinophil, a type of white blood cell, builds up in the lining of the esophagus.
“This buildup, which is a reaction to foods, allergens or acid reflux, can inflame or injure the esophageal tissue. Damaged esophageal tissue can lead to difficulty swallowing or cause food to get stuck when you swallow,” its website stated.
The website further explained that since it is a chronic relapsing disease, most people require ongoing treatment to control the symptoms whether it be dietary therapy, medication or dilation (stretching of the esophagus).
For Hebblethwaite, it has been dilation so far and that is still the current method of operation. What began as hospital visits every two to three weeks has transitioned to once a week as he continually goes in to make sure his esophagus stays open. According to Hunter, there is also careful consideration for his diet which includes nothing crunchy, but soft foods to be safe.
Describing 2017 as a tough year would undoubtedly be an understatement for Hebblethwaite, but in addition to all the support he has received, it is also his faith that keeps him going each day.
“It is pretty scary. I did not know if I was going to live after some of the surgeries I had over the summer and I am a freshman and was not expecting to do this,” he noted. “God has something to do with me. God wants me to do something whenever I grow up, so he made me live.”
The young freshman, who also plays soccer for School of the Osage, has been able to retain a semblance of his normal routine by being back able to go back to school and enjoying time at home with his family every night. He smilingly admitted he has a little training to do to get ready for soccer season next fall and will need to get back in shape before then, but if 2017 has taught him anything, it is perseverance.
“Life gives you challenges, but you need to overcome them,” he said. “You always have something going on in your life and no matter what happens, just keep going.”
For his mother, that lesson is appreciation.
“Don’t take life for granted at all. You never know what is going to happen day to day and always tell that person you love them,” she said.
And just a few moments later she did just that as she turned to her son and said, “I love you and I am glad that you are with us.”