By Randy Arrington
LURAY — Pregnancy can be a wonderful milestone for a woman, but it’s not a time to celebrate…at least not in the proverbial sense as it relates to alcohol, according to local author and former nurse Sherry Ford.
“No amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy…none…and there is no safe time to drink during pregnancy,” Ford said. “Some might think a little bit is okay, but it’s not.”
With the CDC estimating that 1 out of 20 children in America’s classrooms (K-12) are suspected of suffering from some effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), Ford says, from personal experience, that any level of alcohol consumption can have an impact on functional brain development.
“A pregnant woman never drinks alone, everything you drink, your baby drinks,” Ford said.
In January, Newman Springs Publishing released a 60-page self-described “memoir” that Ford penned titled, “A Dirty Little Secret: The Story of Richard, A Victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.”
The short work available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble tells the personal story of raising a child who suffers from the effects of FAS. In 2001, Ford’s brother died suddenly at the age of 53 from a heart attack, leaving her to raise his two boys, ages 13 and 11.
“One day they were happy and living with their dad…and the next day, they never went home again,” Ford said. “It was very difficult on them, and I was always very open with them about what happened … I was very determined to have them know their mother.”
Richard and Michael’s mother had consumed as much as “two or three bottles a day” before going into alcohol-induced cardiac arrest when they were just toddlers. She did not gain consciousness for nearly a decade and later required surgery to straighten her back and relieve her of being in a constant fetal position. In addition to sessions with psychologists after their father passed, Ford took the boys weekly to visit their mother in an attempt to bridge the large gap in their relationship.
“I took them to see her every Sunday and they hated it because she didn’t know who they were,” Ford said. “They would say, ‘Why do we have to do this? She doesn’t even know who we are…what kind of mother doesn’t know her children’.”
Even with her degree from the University of Maryland School of Nursing and serving more than a decade as an advanced practice registered nurse with a specialty in adult psychiatric and mental health nursing, Ford still did not detect the true nature of Richard’s problems for some time. Michael attained a college degree, became a construction manager with a large company in Maryland, and for the most part, was highly functioning — minus a few “short comings” such as memory issues that would drive him to develop “work-a-rounds”. However, Richard, the older brother, didn’t do well at school, was often argumentative, and displayed mental, physical and behavioral traits that showed “something was off.”
“We all experienced his issues…he had no boundaries…it was obvious that there was something off, but I always put it on the situation…the schools would blame it on a learning disability…unless you live with it, and see it, it’s hard to imagine,” Ford said. “I didn’t put all the dots together…even as a nurse.”
The woman who has worked in hospitals, served as a Certified Nurse Psychotherapist for a substance abuse program, and as the director of Geropsychiatric Services for a large healthcare system, says that the physical effects of FAS are sometimes not real obvious, but the most difficult for families to deal with are the behavioral issues.
“They can have a normal IQ, but still have poor social awareness…they could walk out into traffic…they could sometimes lack the concept of geographical awareness,” Ford said. “Teaching him to drive was one of the hardest things.”
After letting him attempt driving, Ford shut down the effort after he had an accident. Later on Richard asked to go to a military school and went to live with another family. They allowed him to get his license, and he passed the driving test. Not long after, he passed a vehicle across a double-solid line — something that Ford says he may not have even noticed or regarded — and hit an oncoming vehicle head on, killing himself and the other driver.
Ford believes that both the struggles Richard endured during his life, as well as the accident that ended it, could have easily been avoided.
“Many people who suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome have a hard time keeping a job and often have problems with the law,” Ford said. “The damage that is done is permanent and irreversible, and yet completely preventable.”
The longtime nurse hopes that her personal story about her nephew Richard will bring more awareness to the issue of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
“This true story is a must-read for all women/couples planning to start a family or already expecting,” reads a promo for the book issued by the publishing company. “No amount of alcohol consumption is safe for a developing child in the uterus. Know the risks of pregnant drinking and protect your child from permanent brain damage.”
Ford especially wants to debunk the belief that a little alcohol is okay. The former nurse says that any alcohol use during pregnancy — and even before — can have an effect.
“There is lots of literature out there…it can even cause problems if you drink soon before you conceive,” Ford said. “You should stop drinking if you are even trying to get pregnant. It could affect the baby’s development even before the mother knows that she is pregnant.”
“Despite that there is a wealth of information on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), Fetal Alcohol Effect (FAE), and Alcohol Related Neurological Disorders (ARND), false claims about the effect of prenatal drinking continue, and the danger of prenatal alcohol exposure remains a threat to the baby in utero,” the book promo reads. “Because the symptoms of FAS are not always easily identifiable to physicians and psychologists, misdiagnosis is frequent. Richard had significant physical and behavioral manifestations, yet FAS was never even considered.”
Each day, a child is born with the effects of consuming alcohol during pregnancy. Ford hopes that through her story and greater awareness of the issues attached to prenatal drinking, families will be able to better identify and cope with the effects on children later in life, and ultimately prevent the condition from existing in the first place.
“The more a woman drinks, the more it will affect their fetus,” Ford said. “This is a condition that is both permanent and 100-percent preventable.
“It’s simply just not worth the risk.”
For more information about Ford’s book “A Dirty Little Secret”,
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