It’s an everyday to-do for teenagers or their parents: make a sandwich to eat on the go. Whether they toss them into brown-bag lunches or bring them along during a full day of activities, sandwiches are common fare for busy families.
So, nothing was out of the ordinary when 14-year-old Missourian Alec Hebblethwaite reached for a sandwich to fuel up in between soccer matches. The basic combination of ham, cheese and bread wouldn’t have raised any alarm bells – but what happened next certainly did.
Before that day, Alec Hebblethwaite was, by all appearances, the average 14-year-old boy. He lived with his mother, Kasey Hunter, along with his stepfather and two brothers. He attended School of the Osage in Lake Ozark, MI, and regularly played soccer.
Every once in a while, though, Hebblethwaite exhibited one little quirk: he occasionally had problems eating. “He would choke on his food,” his mother told the Daily Mail. “But we always chalked it up to eating too fast or talking while he was eating. We never thought about it too much.”
But as it turned out it had nothing to do with how fast Hebblethwaite was eating: doctors diagnosed him with eosinophilic esophagitis, a condition that affects approximately one in 1,500 children, although the Mayo Clinic projects that it will become more common.
The condition creates an excess of white blood cells in the esophagus, which then causes the tissue to become inflamed. This makes it difficult to swallow food, which explained why Hebblethwaite had been prone to choking his whole life.
It wasn’t until April of 2017 that his choking caused a serious scare, though. That month, after snacking – and choking – on crackers, Hebblethwaite had to go to the hospital. Doctors told him he had scratched his esophagus and that he should not eat “hard food” anymore. But that one simple piece of advice was all he was given.
Just a month later, though, he would be back in the hospital fighting for his life. This time, the culprit was not a “hard food” about which Hebblethwaite had been warned; instead, it was a ham and cheese sandwich he ate between soccer matches on May 21, 2017.
Somehow, one bite of his sandwich had torn his esophagus on the way down. In most cases, an esophageal tear is serious – but it’s easy to repair with surgery. Unfortunately for Hebblethwaite, though, his treatment would not go according to the textbook.
Two days after he choked on his sandwich, he was supposed to have the routine surgery to repair his esophagus. But then trouble struck. Doctors discovered that the 14-year-old had become septic, meaning he had a bacterial infection that would stall his trip to the operating room.
“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,” Hebblethwaite’s mom told Lake News Online. “That was really scary.” Doctors acted quickly to help rid his body of infection, but it wouldn’t be an easy journey.
They first inserted two chest tubes into Hebblethwaite’s body: one was meant to feed him, while the other served as a drain. But by June 2017, he needed surgery to replace these tubes – both of which had become clogged – with larger versions.
In the same month, he had another procedure that focused on his initial issue, his esophagus. Doctors believed that a stent would facilitate healing of the area. “It acted as a lattice for new tissue to grow around it,” Hebblethwaite’s mother told the Daily Mail.
And yet, with all these moves forward, Hebblethwaite took a huge step back a month later: he was septic and in intensive care once again. As a result, doctors removed more clogged chest tubes and his esophageal stent, after discovering that the original one had begun to leak.
With that, efforts to heal the 14-year-old’s esophagus were back on track. Moreover, just one month later, the organ was back to normal. What doctors didn’t expect was what they found during a CT scan in August 2017: the boy’s gallbladder was both inflamed and infected and would have to be removed.
This final obstacle would have to wait until October 19, 2017, as doctors had to delay surgery until the gallbladder was less inflamed; otherwise, they said, it was unsafe to remove. In the midst of all this, though, there was one bit of good news.
After nearly four months – 106 days – in the hospital, the teenager was allowed to go home from the hospital on September 3, 2017. He even went back to school in October, regaining the normalcy lost the day of his May 2017 soccer game.
Still, Hebblethwaite’s treatment will continue indefinitely because his condition is a chronic one that regularly flares up. Although each case varies, doctors typically recommend medications and dietary changes to reduce inflammation. Esophageal dilation, the gentle stretching of the affected tissues, can also make eating easier.
Hebblethwaite has now undergone this stretching procedure, and he has also tweaked his diet to incorporate softer foodstuffs. According to Hunter, her son now eats “mac and cheese, pastas, ground burger and potatoes.” And, chances are, the happy-go-lucky teen is staying healthy by maintaining the positive vibes that he carried with him throughout his ordeal, too.
“He had the greatest attitude through all this,” his mother said. “He didn’t complain that he was stuck in the hospital.” And his positivity continues to guide him, as he reportedly wants to pick up soccer again even after everything that happened in 2017. “He’s hoping to get in shape so he can play next year,” Hunter said.