Please, if there is any possibility of pregnancy, observe 049, which means "Zero alcohol for nine months." It's the least you can do, to totally avoid the possibility of your baby's brain being damaged by alcohol, which changes his entire life.
Thank you, Kari, for all you do.
Fletcher: Disorder is preventable
FAIRMONT - Ben is 11 years old. He looks like an average child; he has an average IQ. But when he gets frustrated, he becomes unable to control his rage.
"School is the most frustrating part of life right now," said his adoptive mother, Kari Fletcher. "Ben would get frustrated and flip into a rage and flip over desks and would have to be hauled to the time out room."
Ben's brain has been damaged, an irreversible side effect of his biological mother's alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
And his suffering - along with that of his family - was 100 percent preventable.
Fletcher has dedicated her life to educating people about the effects of drinking alcohol during pregnancy. She is the southern Minnesota regional resource coordinator for the Minnesota Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
The Rotary Club of Fairmont is sponsoring a seminar on fetal alcohol spectrum disorders given by Fletcher Thursday at the Fairmont Opera House.
Phil Smith, a member of the Rotary Club, said Fletcher presented the information at a Rotary meeting last year.
"We thought, 'Wow! This is 100 percent preventable, so if we could get this out to as many people as (possible), that would be a good thing,'" Smith said.
Fletcher said fetal alcohol syndrome disorder is a spectrum disorder, meaning the severity of the birth defects fall on a continuum.
"Most people don't have full blown fetal alcohol syndrome, with the facial features and small bodies," Fletcher said. "Most people with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders look pretty normal, have average IQs. The problem is with the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that tells us to stop and have a second thought. It influences impulse control, lets kids plan things out and to learn something in one setting and apply it in another setting.
"This is important to surviving in our society."
According to Fletcher, the specific damage caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol depends on when during the pregnancy the mother took a drink. She said the recognizable facial disfiguration - including a flat groove above the lip, a thin upper lip and shortened eyes - seems to be most prevalent when the mother consumes alcohol during the first few weeks of pregnancy - often even before a woman knows she is pregnant.
Brain damage, low birth weight, malformed organs and miscarriage are also effects of alcohol exposure while in utero.
One of the reasons alcohol consumption during pregnancy is so damaging, Fletcher said, is because it goes directly into the baby's blood stream.
"It directly crosses the placenta," she said. "When mom drinks alcohol, the baby's blood alcohol level matches the mom's, but the mom has a mature elimination system. The baby stays 'drunk' longer and doesn't have the mature liver to process it out."
Since the alcohol stays with the fetus longer, there is more time for it to kill or alter brain cells. Fletcher said specialized cells can get rerouted and end up in the wrong part of the brain.
"The child has all the information up there sometimes, but can't access it," she said. "The brain is very vulnerable."
And this disorder doesn't just affect children.
"(People with FASD) can have trouble holding a job, have a hard time in school, and really struggle in our fast paced, abstract society," Fletcher said.
It wasn't until the 1970s that doctors identified fetal alcohol syndrome. The range of disorders on the spectrum - including partial fetal alcohol syndrome, alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder and fetal alcohol effects - weren't identified until later, when doctors noticed children with the behavioral and neurological effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, but without the facial features and small stature.
Fletcher pointed out that many people have recognized specific similarities in the children of alcohol-addicted mothers.
"It has been noted throughout history," she said.
"I don't believe any mom means to do this."
Because the symptoms of FASD tend to be invisible - and because of the stigma of a woman admitting to a doctor she drank during pregnancy - fetal alcohol spectrum disorders often are misdiagnosed.
Ben was first diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism, Fletcher said.
"The ADHD medications didn't work," she said. "With Ben it made him more aggressive."
Fletcher said that while the symptoms may seem similar between disorders, their underlying cause - and therefore how they are treated - is vastly different.
Ben was eventually diagnosed with alcohol related neurodevelopmental disorder.
Fletcher knew about his disability when he was adopted. She and her husband were Ben's foster parents. After adopting him, the family learned Ben's biological mother had another child needing a home, and the Fletchers adopted her too. Anna is 6 years old and suffers from a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder as well. The couple also have four biological children.
Despite the bleak circumstances fetal alcohol spectrum disorder children have to overcome, Fletcher stresses that this diagnosis is not a death sentence. The key is determining strategies for helping them find success.
"It's like this," she said. "I have a brain deficiency myself, and I don't know where it comes from, but I have a lack of direction. I can study a map all day and not know north. But I travel all over the state. I have to use a map drawn by my husband or Mapquest. I look at my kids and ask myself, 'What can I pull in to help them?' These kids are not lazy, willful or defiant."
For women who are pregnant and maybe had a drink before they knew it, or perhaps even after they did, Fletcher says not to panic.
"Different amounts affect different fetuses," she said. "Timing is a factor, as well as the baby's resiliency."
But if down the road the child has an attention problem, she says not to hesitate to find a doctor familiar with the disorder and have the child tested.
"Many women talk about the pregnancy police," Fletcher said. "'You can't do this, you can't do that,' but I say this isn't about what you can't do, it is about what you can do. This is a disability that you can 100 percent prevent. Wow, you have incredible power."
There are two free educational workshops to choose from during Fletcher's seminar on Thursday - one from 1-4:30 p.m., the other 6:30-9:15 p.m. Three continuing education credits are available with pre-registration and a $20 fee. The deadline for CEU registration is Wednesday. Call (507) 238-4382 to register.