The walls of Nathaniel Sprague’s living room have transformed into a gallery of love, papered in art and stories and greetings sent to him from around the city.
Cards and drawings arrive by the dozens since his mom reached out to her Nextdoor community and Tigard Life shared a story on the local 8-year-old asking readers to help lift his spirits as he recovers from an abdominal surgery earlier this fall.
“This is just today,” Elizabeth Sprague said, picking up a stack of unopened mail from the piano bench in her living room. “That’s what it’s been like every day since the article.”
On the wall behind her were kid drawings of rainbows and superheroes, pictures of puppies and bears and giraffes; pictures of planets and supernovas, cartoons and stories.
The keyboard is piled with toys – some handmade for him – games and books, including a picture book about three kids with different feeding tubes called The Adventures of Super Tubie, and another called My Brother has Two Belly Buttons. All of it was sent to help cheer him.
He’s received encouraging solidarity stories from adults and even animals about their medical challenges. One person made him a wooden train car, another sewed a stuffed bear.
Neighbor Donna Ausby stops by early most mornings to leave a little something on the porch for Nathaniel. She’s been doing it regularly since his surgery.
“I just bring things to keep him active and thinking of things other than the hole in his stomach,” she said. “Anything to distract him from the discomfort.”
At press time, Nathaniel had received mail from 243 people.
But, the most exciting number in the Sprague household right now is 5.
Nathaniel has gained 5 lbs., nearly one a week, with the tube, a major win for a boy who was eating so little he’d fallen off his growth curve and developed anemia.
Nathaniel is the youngest of Elizabeth and Mike Sprague’s five boys. The close-knit family lives in Mike’s childhood home with a menagerie of animals, some pets and others just fosters passing through on their way to forever homes.
“I cried when he first left (for the hospital), ” his 9-year-old brother Theodore said. “I haven’t been without my brother before.”
Two weeks post-op Nathaniel was a grinning whirlwind of imagination, spinning around the house and yard with Theodore, making up games.
Nathaniel was quick to lift his shirt and show off the device, a PEG tube, that’s helping him grow.
He takes four “meals” a day directly into his stomach, while his parents continue to introduce new foods by mouth.
“He’s just started eating grilled cheese,” Elizabeth said. “It’s taken us years to get him to eat ice cream, even a tablespoon of ice cream. He’ll only eat chocolate ice cream. A very small amount with nothing in it.”
Nathaniel, who has Autism and sensory sensitivities couldn’t tolerate many textures. He was eating only crunchy foods like bacon and chips, his favorite, but the list was shrinking.
With the tube, he’s eager to try new things, even though he can’t taste them.
“I’m hoping that wanting to try the new foods in his tube and getting excited about them, and helping to prepare them will be a little stepping stone toward them going in another way.”
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing though.
He’s needed two tube repairs, and after once vomiting following a meal Nathaniel became apprehensive about feedings.
Next month he’ll return to Portland’s Providence St. Vincent hospital for a second, less invasive surgery to swap the PEG tube, which extends from his belly creating the possibility it could catch on something, with another device that will be flush to his skin.
The continuing stream of mail “really brightens his day,” Mike said. “This is a great thing that people reached out and did this for him.”
And, all those well wishes add up to a powerful lesson in community for his whole family.
“Community is a big part of our homeschool curriculum this year and this experience has been the perfect way to jump right in,” Elizabeth said. “The big question for this theme is what is community? And now the answer greats us every time we walk in the door.”