Photo by Jay Paul
Nancy Thompson (right) with feeding-tube patient Allie Jones, 5, and her mother Amanda
Amid the often-difficult lives of children who depend on feeding tubes to stay alive, their trips to the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU have simply become known among many physicians as “a Nancy visit.”
That would be Nancy Thompson, a pediatric nurse practitioner attached to the Division of Pediatric Surgery. “A ministering angel is what I would call her,” says Dr. Charles Bagwell, a pediatric surgeon at the VCU Medical Center.
At times, Thompson sees herself in a far different light. “I have kids [who] when I walk into the room, they cry,” says Thompson, recalling the sometimes-painful adjustments that have to be made to feeding, or “g” (gastrostomy), tubes, as they are known. The tubes protrude through the abdominal wall, and the skin around them often becomes red and painfully excoriated. It takes patience, professional experience and a gentle touch to make things go well.
The children aren’t able to eat conventionally, either because of facial deformities or myriad other complications that prevent them from taking nourishment through their mouths.
In the world outside of a hospital or doctor’s office, Thompson says many of the patients she deals with — from newborns up through age 21 — see themselves as different, and are sometimes devalued by those they encounter because of their complicated medical problems.
Sometimes what they need most is someone to talk to, someone to help them feel normal, someone who will let them spill their problems out, Thompson says. “I listen … open mind, nonjudgmental,” she says.
More than 30 years ago, Thompson was working at a day care center when she decided that caring for others, especially children, was what she wanted to do with her life. She drove herself professionally, first studying for an associate’s degree in nursing, then, in rapid succession, earning her nursing degree, a master’s degree and certification as a nurse practitioner.
One of Thompson’s great abilities, physicians say, is being able to teach family members and others how to take care of children who have feeding tubes. “Parents leave the clinic feeling like they are now the experts, which is exactly what Nancy intends,” says Dr. Patty Lange, a pediatric surgeon.
In recent years, Thompson has taken on another daunting assignment: trying to help young people who are morbidly obese. She is coordinator of the Adolescent Weight Loss Surgery Program, which strives to help obese adolescents regain a normal life through a variety of weight-loss strategies, surgical and otherwise.
Surgery, she says, is typically the last step if nothing else is helping. “We tell them it’s a tool, not a cure,” Thompson says of the various forms of bariatric surgery.
Whether working with children and adolescents who need feeding tubes or with those having the polar opposite problem — eating so much they become obese — Thompson says that for her, there is an enduring constant.
“I feel like I’m really making a difference,” she says. The children who come to her for “Nancy visits” could tell you all about that.