Recovery sweetens family's feast

Albany-- Toddler who just months ago was unable to breathe or eat on his own to have a special Thanksgiving

By SYLVIA WOOD, Staff writer
First published: Wednesday, November 21, 2001
On Thanksgiving, Brett Labier will be able to taste mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and other trimmings of a festive meal.

22-month old Brett Labier, right, and his twin brother Reece at their home in Guilderland.
It's a big step for a little boy who four months ago couldn't even breathe on his own, let alone eat. "I call him our miracle baby,'' said his father, Rene Labier.

Thanks to delicate surgery at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio this fall, Brett -- now 22 months old -- is laughing, making conversation and popping Cheerios at his family's Hanna Court home.

"He can go back to living a normal life,'' said Dr. Peter J. Koltai, who spent 16 years as a physician at Albany Medical Center before going to the Cleveland Clinic in 1998. In September, he operated on Brett, using cartilage from the toddler's rib cage to repair a damaged windpipe.

The surgery marked the end of a long journey for the boy and his family. The problems began Jan. 9, 2000, when Brett and his twin brother, Reece, were born three months premature. The boys, weighing only slightly more than 2 pounds each, had the usual complications from such an early arrival.

But Brett, the smaller of the two, faced additional challenges when he contracted pertussis, also known as whooping cough, while awaiting hernia surgery in the hospital.

Unable to breathe on his own, physicians had to perform a tracheotomy, inserting a tube in his windpipe.

"Every parent's worst fear is you'll lose your child but I don't think many are faced with it as a real possibility,'' said Brett's mother, Denise Labier.

While Reece was able to leave the hospital on April 2, Brett spent almost the entire first nine months of his life at Albany Medical Center, with his parents keeping a bedside vigil.

"We were eating out, ordering in and just juggling schedules,'' said Rene Labier, a psychologist employed by the state who also has two older sons, ages 13 and 11.

When Brett was finally well enough to go home in September, he left the hospital with oxygen tanks, suction equipment and other medical technology to maintain both his feeding tubes and his tracheotomy.

Although the family had initially hoped the tracheotomy would be temporary, Brett failed to breathe on his own after three unsuccessful efforts to remove it.

"It was extremely traumatic, especially since he would be gasping for air. Nothing was going in or out,'' said Denise Labier, who works part-time for Catholic Charities Disability Services in Latham.

In May of this year, the family was faced with the prospect of leaving the breathing tube in place for another few years, and dealing with the developmental consequences. While his twin brother, Reece, was starting to talk, Brett could only make a few sounds by moving air over his tracheotomy. And he still couldn't eat very much on his own.

Then the family learned of Dr. Koltai through a local speech pathologist who used to work with the physician in Albany.

"The thought of waiting until he was five years old and what that would mean to him cognitively, socially and developmentally, we just couldn't do it,'' Rene said.

"We would look at him and say, 'how unfair, this is really his only obstacle,' '' said Denise.

So the family decided to go ahead with the $60,000 surgery, and on Sept. 25, Koltai took a little piece of cartilage from the front of the boy's rib cage and stitched it over the damaged area of his windpipe. "By expanding and adding to the framework of that area, we could enlarge the windpipe,'' Koltai said.

The results were almost immediate. Within three days, Brett was off the ventilator and breathing on his own. "The cartilage will grow with him and he'll be fine,'' Koltai said.

The family is trying not to worry about the cost of the operation -- it's still uncertain how much CDPHP, their local HMO, will cover, Denise said.

Rather, the parents are marveling in the transformation of their boy, who is not only talking but "eating like a horse,'' according to his mother.

"The most charming thing that happened after the surgery was to hear him laugh,'' Rene said.