A family copes with fetal alcohol syndrome
Ignorant of the consequences, Jasper’s birth mother drank during her pregnancy, leaving him with a learning disability that his adopted family must help him to overcome.
IQALUIT Nellie Peryouar sits in the audience listening intently as the Yellowknife pediatrician describes what happens to babies when mothers drink alcohol during pregnancy.
“In the first three months, the cells are dividing quickly and are especially sensitive to the alcohol,” Dr. Nicole Chatel explains. “In the second three months the organs are developing, but there are more miscarriages.
“What we see when a mother drinks in the last three months is the cells that are supposed to be growing, don’t grow. The energy is used up by having the alcohol there.”
Throughout pregnancy, a baby’s developing brain can suffer irreparable damage if it’s exposed to booze.
It’s all very familiar to Peryouar, sitting beside her 10-year-old adopted son, Jasper.
Chatel is talking about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effects, the medical names given to physical and mental birth defects caused when mothers consume alcohol during their pregnancies.
She is also describing Jasper.
Mother never heard of FAS
“Everything she presented affected Jasper,” Peryouar says during a conference in Iqaluit last week to raise awareness of FAS/E.
Sitting in a local restaurant, Peryouar remembers how Jasper entered her life.
A family friend had approached her and her husband to see if they would adopt her baby. She was only a few months pregnant at the time and she’d never heard of FAS, or that drinking during pregnancy could harm her baby,
“She didn’t know then, until the birth,” Peryouar said. “There was no information at all then.”
Jasper was born small and with breathing problems. He spent more than three months in a Montreal hospital before coming home to Baker Lake, where Peryouar lives.
“Everything had become so mixed up our excitement, our anxieties,” Peryouar says. “I wasn’t disappointed, but a little sad to hear how he was born.”
In the first three years of Jasper’s life he continued to have serious breathing problems and spent much of the time under the treatment of local nurses and medical specialists from the South.
Peryouar and her adult daughter cared for Jasper together.
At the same time, another child, Gloria, adopted into the family six months after Jasper was born, grew healthy and robust.
“Each time the doctor and I looked at the (growth) charts, Jasper’s chart was lower than other children’s growth and weight for his age,” Peryouar said.
Like most other children, Jasper loves chocolate, computers and TV. And like most other 10-year-olds, he’s in Grade 5.
“I don’t fail,” he pipes in between sips of Coca Cola.
But it bothers him, sometimes, that he isn’t growing, either physically or mentally, as quickly as other children his age. It used to be worse.
“He wouldn’t understand other children because they pick up a lot more,” his mother explains. “He needed to repeat things. We needed to repeat things.”
Children need special support
Children with FAS/E have learning problems and generally a difficult time understanding the rules of society, according to Dr. Chatel, but she says it’s important to focus on children’s strengths.
“If these aren’t supported right from the time they’re small, they’ll lose them,” Chatel says.
It was that philosophy that led Peryouar to enroll her son in classes at school with his sister Gloria and, in consultation with his teachers, advance him through the grades.
“I write and draw,” Jasper says. “I write in journals.”
Peryouar’s calm and gentle disposition belies her uncertainty about the future, though.
“I don’t know for sure what will happen in the future for us…or for Jasper.”