Eighteen-year-old Allison Pollock and 16-year-old Sam Kase have a lot in common,
but it was a shared surgery that drew them together. After Sam read an article in Children's Hospital Boston's Dream magazine online, the two teens found support—and new friendship—in each other.
Like Allison, Sam grew up with breathing and swallowing problems due to an abnormal opening between his esophagus and larynx-trachea. When breathing or drinking, air and liquids would often go into Sam's lungs, which would make him inhale deeply and sometimes choke. Allison also had trouble breathing and swallowing, and felt lethargic and had recurring bouts of pneumonia. After many years of evaluation, Allison came to Children's and was diagnosed as having a rare abnormality called a laryngeal cleft—a defect in the separation between the larynx, or voice box, and the esophagus. For both teenagers, part of growing up meant making multiple visits to specialists' offices, trying out many medications and having surgery.
After hearing about the laryngeal cleft surgery performed by Reza Rahbar, DMD, MD, an otolaryngologist and director of the Center for Aero-Digestive Disorders (CADD) at Children's, Sam's parents began to research Rahbar and his non-invasive endoscopic surgery on the Internet. "When we first found out about the procedure and how relatively new it was, my parents pulled together a few articles, one of which was a Dream story about a patient named Allison," says Sam.
In the fall of 2005, Allison had been featured in a Dream article, "Reaching New Heights," in which she talked about the years she suffered from swallowing problems and her surgery at Children's, which was so successful it allowed her to return to playing on her high school volleyball team. Sam was inspired. Wanting to know more about the surgery from someone who'd been through it, he decided to do some investigation of his own. "Allison had the surgery at about the same age as I was, when she was 15, back in 2005," says Sam. "I assumed she was either now a senior in high school or freshman in college. So chances were good that she'd have a profile on Facebook. I hoped that if I found her I could ask a couple questions about the surgery and her recovery."
Sam easily tracked down Allison's profile and sent her a short email introducing himself and asking a few questions. "I was willing to help anyone thinking about the surgery," says Allison, who decided to share her story as another way to help others. Sam and Allison exchanged email addresses and they swapped stories about what it had been like growing up with their disorders. "Before surgery, I was never able to have sleepovers for fear of getting sick," says Sam. "It turned out that Allison had similar problems and understood what I was going through."
"I also told Sam how the hospital took very good care of me," says Allison. "And I told him how I had trouble eating after surgery since my throat was swollen." She advised him to stay away from trying to eat pizza for a while and stick to soft foods. Soon, Allison made Sam a "friend" on Facebook and the two corresponded at least once a week for two months before Sam went in for the surgery earlier this year. As Allison had predicted, Sam recovered quickly from the operation: He had the laryngeal cleft surgery on a Thursday and was out of the hospital by Saturday. "Allison was very helpful, especially explaining the recovery since she'd been through it," he says. "My recovery did turn out great. I thought it was going to be more painful, but by Monday I could eat again."
Rahbar and his team still follow each of them and are pleased with their progress. "I think the endoscopic approach was a good way to manage these cases and they've both shown improvement of their general health after the surgery," says Rahbar. "I can't overemphasize the importance of the CADD multidisciplinary approach to their treatment, and the team efforts of Rachel Rosen, MD (co-director of CADD), Eliot Katz, MD, and Craig Lillehei, MD, in the outcome of their health."
In July, Allison, Sam and their families met face-to-face for the first time at Children's Department of Otolaryngology. It was an opportunity for the families to share stories about treatment and recovery and for Sam and Allison to chat over coffee. They were thrilled to finally meet in person, and both are looking forward to sharing their new experiences as happy, healthful teenagers.