Feeding tube: plumbing hacks

CAREGIVING:  Last week Kathy’s feeding tube started acting up. Well, actually it has been a gradual thing. A few months ago I noticed the purple plug end of the tubing (coming from the feeding bag) was slipping out of her stomach port. I fixed that by lightly roughing-up the plug of each bag with a little piece of sandpaper. It is just enough to grip it better.

A "Lopez" Valve lets you turn things on and off.
A “Lopez” Valve lets you turn things on and off.

The extension tube: Kathy’s first feeding tube was put in when she was in the hospital last June. It lasted until December of last year when we found it laying next to her on the bed.  We don’t think she is capable of pulling it out. The little balloon that holds it in failed. So, this is her second tube. I felt like the orange “Lopez Valve” was stretching the opening of the new tube, but I still needed an on/off switch to control the water and meds in her stomach. I rigged together an “extension cord.” I made it from tubing and a plug from a feeding bag. I put a valve at the feed end. Since the actual tube port is on Kathy’s left side, it lets me give her meds and water from the right side of her bed. More convenient for both of us.

My extension tube
My extension tube
The little built in plug is starting to rip off so I made a plug on a string.
The little built-in plug is starting to rip off so I made a plug on a string.

The cork: In the process of giving her water and meds (and plugging and unplugging her tube); the little built-in stopper started to tear. I had to improvise a “cork” or stopper from a male tube end and a piece of thin elastic cord. The combo of the extension plus the stopper reduced a little of the wear and tear on the tube. It let us buy some time with this tube.

Calling the Plumber: The reality is that feeding tubes wear out. They need to be replaced every 4 to 6 months; I’ve been told. Kathy is due for a new one. So, when the tube was completely plugged a week or so ago I figured we would bring her to the emergency room again to get it replaced. I was in the middle of giving her medicines and water one night when it got totally plugged. The harder I pushed on the syringe; the more it squirted in my face. I kept her food unplugged, and I waited until the next morning.

I called Shannon, our nurse at Mercy Hospice and asked if I should call for an ambulance. She said to wait. She was coming out anyway. She asked me to try pushing some ginger ale into the tube. Sometimes the bubbles will loosen up the build up. I got some ginger ale and some club soda and tried that. Nothing would unplug it. In desperation I found a short piece of wire; purified it with rubbing alcohol; and fed it into the tube.The plugged area was right where it turns the corner to go into her stomach. I just slowly turned the wire a little and I heard a little fart of air from the tube – success!

I called and left a message for Shannon that I unplugged the tube. When she arrived she told me that a plugged feeding tube was kind of a big deal from the hospice standpoint. Since a feeding tube is considered life-sustaining, to get a new one they would have to discharge Kathy from hospice. Then we would need to have her health insurance pay for the ambulance to the hospital to have the tube changed. Then, once she is home again she would be readmitted to hospice. So I avoided some complications by getting the thing working again. The surprising thing is that it works like new; except for all the hacks it needs to keep working at all.

Feeding tube hacks
Feeding tube hacks (click to enlarge)