Listening to Tanner: Finding help for a functional gastrointestinal disorder

functional gastrointestinal disorder

For most families, movie night is simply an opportunity to enjoy each other’s company while soaking up some mindless entertainment. But for Tanner Chung and his family, a trip to the theater was life changing. As they watched the tale of a young girl with a mysterious illness play out on the big screen, they were struck by the similarities to Tanner’s own story.

The film was the 2016 drama Miracles From Heaven, which is based on the true experiences of a girl who was treated by Dr. Samuel Nurko at Boston Children’s Hospital for a motility disorder.

“We had been hoping for some guidance, some help, for Tanner,” explains his mother, Michelle. “The movie was full of signs.” She and her husband, Quincy, decided to reach out to Boston Children’s. Within a day, they had a return call from practice liaison nurse Tracy Myers.

“She asked me for details about Tanner’s situation and I told her it was really complicated,” says Michelle. “She told me she had all day. That was the first time I felt like someone really listened to us.”

A few weeks later, Tanner had an appointment with nine clinicians at the hospital’s Motility and Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders Center, including Dr. Nurko, and the family flew east from their home in Idaho.

treatment for functional gi disorders

‘It’s very real’

At a recent appointment, Tanner appeared healthy and happy as he joked with his care team. But his vibrant exterior is misleading. Now age 9, he’s struggled with chronic joint and gastrointestinal pain for much of his young life.

The road to Boston Children’s has been a long one for the Chungs. Despite traveling to see physicians in California, Washington and Utah, answers eluded them — and Tanner’s pain remained. “For a long time, it seemed like nobody believed us,” Michelle says. “We even had some doctors tell us it was all in Tanner’s head.”

But in Boston, they found validation.

After speaking with Tanner and examining him, Dr. Nurko thought he had identified the problem. “He looked right at us and said, ‘I know what this is, and it’s very real,’” Michelle remembers. He made a diagnosis: a functional gastrointestinal disorder, which triggered pain when the boy ate, drank and went to the bathroom. Dr. Nurko then began a multidisciplinary approach to the problem, using a biopsychosocial model that addresses the many biological, emotional and social challenges a child can experience as a result of their symptoms.

help for functional gastrointestinal disorder

A team approach

 Since that first visit, the Chungs have returned twice to Boston Children’s, where Tanner has also received treatment for a compromised immune system and multi-joint symptoms. His orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Travis Matheney, is part of the multidisciplinary team working in concert with his local therapists and physicians.

It’s an approach that Michelle and Quincy appreciate. “I know doctors can get territorial, but from what we’ve experienced at Boston Children’s, they really tend to work together,” says Michelle. “They care about my son, not their egos.”

While he still experiences the ups and downs of living with multiple chronic conditions, Tanner’s in a better frame of mind knowing that he’s in good hands. A diehard football fanatic, he also enjoys engineering LEGO buildings and woodworking with his dad. And his parents are relieved that they finally have the guidance they had hoped to receive.

“Every time our plane has landed in Boston, we’ve felt safe and protected,” Michelle says. “It feels like we’re home.”

Learn about the Motility and Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders Center.