School nurse Cassia stepped in to support Harlan Groombridge and his family to finally enjoy family mealtimes together.
Harlan Groombridge loves strawberries, carrots and fish and chips – something that his family never thought would happen.
Harlan used to be so anxious about eating he would cry and go rigid with fear rather than put something in his mouth. But thanks to the support of school nurse Cassia Lim, the lively seven-year-old is now enjoying family meals with his brothers Kathan and Deakan, his sister Lakosa, his dad Tom and his mum Jeannene.
But this wasn’t a simple case of fussy eating. Two weeks after Harlan was born he was diagnosed with severe acid reflux, which caused serious damage to his oesophagus. He was prescribed special formula milk, but by the time Jeannene tried weaning him onto solid food mealtimes had already become a battleground.
“Basically he would only eat milk, bread or pureed potato,” said Jeannene. “We called it beige food. Even when he started school he was hardly eating a thing and he would go to enormous lengths to conceal his lunch. School trips were a nightmare. We were getting all sorts of conflicting advice from friends and family – some just thought we were pandering to him. But he had a genuine fear of food that stemmed from his medical problems as a baby. He found it so hard to put anything near his mouth, he would literally start to shake and hyperventilate.”
In desperation the Groombridges, from Broadstairs, turned to their GP for help and a locum doctor at Mockett’s Surgery put them in touch with the School Health Service at Kent Community Health NHS Foundation Trust in February 2015.
“The first day that Cassia arrived, something changed,” said Jeannene. “We weren’t dismissed, we were listened to. She took the time to talk to us as a family and she took the problem seriously. Most importantly she listened to Harlan and asked him how he was feeling. It sounded strange but she understood that Harlan was not only as anxious as we were, but that he was also embarrassed. She devised a strategy where we could let him try food in private and spit it out if he wanted to.
“That evening he walked into the dining room with a big smile and said ‘I like carrots’. Honestly it was like a scene out of Little House on the Prairie, we were all crying tears of joy and the rest of the kids were cuddling him.”
Cassia continued to see the family once a week for a couple of months until Harlan was trying lots of different foods. She used a ‘ladder’ system to tackle his anxiety, the foods at the bottom of the ladder were those he wanted to try and those at the top he wasn’t so keen on. She also got Tom and Jeannene to use rewards when he tried new food.
Cassia said: “School nurses don’t have a magic wand, the family had to really want to solve the problem and luckily they were completely ready to do so, especially Harlan.”
Now Jeannene, who is a part time dinner lady at a nearby infant school, is able to prepare family meals that they can all enjoy. “It’s made such a difference to us all,” said dad Tom, “We can go out for meals as a family whenever we like now and not get stressed. The pressure is off!”
Jeannene said: “My advice to anyone in the same position as us is – give yourself a break and ask for help, it is there.”