As he approaches his second birthday, Charley Sterling is finally the bubbly little boy his mother dreamed he could be. "This is basically a miracle," Courtney Tourville Sterling says. "He is so happy now."
Charley's story of overcoming GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, is really the story of a mother who wouldn't give up, dedicating herself to helping her son get well. And that's no surprise, considering the family they're part of. The Tourvilles, of Orangeburg, South Carolina, are known for their perseverance and success in business — and their generosity. The family recently donated $10 million to help build what will be known as the Pearl Tourville Women's Pavilion when it opens in 2019. The facility, tied to the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children's Hospital, will give women and children access to highly specialized equipment, rare procedures and advanced sub-specialists in a centralized location.
Charley's mom knows from experience just how important it is to connect with the right specialists. Her son's digestive trouble became apparent soon after he was born. "We just knew something wasn't right," Sterling says. "He was really fussy and you'd hear his stomach gurgling after he ate."
What ultimately worked for Charley was a procedure at MUSC Children's Health followed by injections of Botox into his pyloric sphincter muscle at the only hospital in the state where doctors regularly offer that.
But Charley went through a lot before he got there. So did his family. His mom first took him to a pediatrician in Orangeburg, where they live. The doctor prescribed acid reflux medicine. "That didn't work," Sterling says. "Then the vomiting started."
Vomiting is one of the symptoms that can signal a child has GERD, sometimes called acid indigestion or heartburn. Other signs include:
- Burning feeling in the chest, neck or throat
- Feeling like food or liquid is coming up in the back of the mouth
- Gagging, choking or trouble swallowing
- Hoarse or raspy voice
- Bad breath
- Sore throat in the morning
- Persistent cough
Charley wasn't old enough to say how he felt, but it was easy for his mom to see. "He was not gaining weight and looked like he felt miserable."
So Sterling took her son to a gastroenterologist, looking for something — anything — that might help. "They thought he might outgrow it and said we should just start feeding him baby food to see if that would help."
Unfortunately, it didn't. "He started throwing up dried blood," she says.
At seven months old, Charley had his first operation, a Nissen fundoplication. The surgeon wrapped the upper part of his stomach around his esophagus. The idea was to allow food to go down the esophagus, but prevent it from coming back up again. And for several months, it seemed to have worked — until a stomach virus made Charley vomit again, and the exhausted little boy kept vomiting after that.
There were more tests. One showed that when food went into Charley's stomach, it took too long to leave, a problem known as delayed gastric emptying. So he had a second surgery, a pyloroplasty, to cut the pylorus valve at the lower part of his stomach, allowing it to empty more quickly. Hopes were high.
"Then, he started throwing up again," Sterling says. "So I said, 'We've got to do something else because this is not working. We knew we needed a second opinion to figure out what's going on. So we went to MUSC Children's Hospital."
Surgeon Antonio Quiros leads the Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition there. He and his team suspected Charley's second operation hadn't quite worked. "We tried a different approach. Charley underwent an endoscopy where we dilated the valve and broke the muscle fibers that were still in it."
Then, Quiros' team used Botox to make sure Charley's pyloric sphincter stayed paralyzed. The hope was that it would allow food to leave Charley's stomach more smoothly, Quiros says. “Dr. Ricardo Arbizu and I have used this strategy before in several other cases with good results.”
To Sterling's relief, it worked. Charley still has a delay in gastric emptying, but the vomiting has for the most part gone away. And doctors say the little boy may outgrow his remaining digestive problems.
Today, Charley is a happy, healthy boy who loves playing with trucks and trying new foods. "He was scared to eat food for a while there, so he was just living off bottles and baby food," his mother remembers. "Finally he'd eat some fries and mashed potatoes and chicken nuggets, and he's trying all kinds of new food now. He's done really well with the procedures he's had at MUSC Children’s Hospital."