Boy on billboard is from A.L.

Published 5:45 pm Saturday, March 27, 2010

Driving north on busy Bridge Avenue in Albert Lea or around Rochester, it’s hard to miss the face of a smiling toddler promoting chocolate chip cookies for the Ronald McDonald House.

It’s a face that is already familiar to some Albert Leans.

Tristan Register, the son of Danielle and Chris Register of Albert Lea, was asked last fall to be part of a McDonald’s promotion to raise money for the house. The family agreed, since the Ronald McDonald House holds a special place in their hearts.

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The family told their story to McDonald’s Courtesy Corp. executives and local owners and took part in a photo shoot in November. In December, they took part in a official kickoff of the “Cookies for Kids’ campaign. Tristan’s photo is now part of a billboard in Albert Lea and three more in Rochester, as well as three digital billboards in Rochester, where his picture rotates with other messages. He’s also on table tents.

Tristan Register was born three months prematurely in July 2008. It was then that the family got to know firsthand about the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester, which provides a “home away from home” and offers support to families seeking medical care for their children. There are bedrooms, laundry and kitchen facilities to use. Community volunteers prepare meals a couple nights a week.

“We always thought it was for families of kids with cancer,” Danielle said of the house. “But they’ve really become part of our family.”

Because of complications that came with his premature birth, the family spent a lot of time at the house while Tristan was hospitalized.

“We could never give enough back to the Ronald McDonald House,” Danielle said.

At birth, Tristan weighed 2 pounds, 6 ounces, and was 14 inches long.

After he was born, he was airlifted from Albert Lea Medical Center to the neonatal intensive care unit at St. Marys Hospital in Rochester. He stayed there for 80 days, growing into a 7-pound boy when he was ready for discharge.

But before leaving the hospital, he had double inguinal hernia surgery, which is not unusual for a premature boy. After that, he developed respiratory problems. Doctors found a cyst that had been irritated by intubation and was closing off 90 percent of his trachea. After a decompression, he was finally able to go home. But that home stay only lasted about 45 days.

One Sunday in October of 2008, he was lethargic. When Danielle and Chris undressed him for a bath, he had a distended belly. He was taken to the Albert Lea Medical Center emergency room, where he stopped breathing. Medical personnel got him breathing again, and he was once again flown to Rochester.

Tristan was diagnosed with late-onset step B and spent another 11 days in the hospital. A bronchoscopy to check his airway revealed a hemangioma (cyst) in his airway.

In December, another bronchoscopy revealed the hemangioma had started to grow again, and by Dec. 19, it covered 70 percent of his airway. It was treated with a steroid injection and dilation. But in the recovery room, he developed respiratory distress and was rushed back into the operating room, intubated and put on a ventilator.

Chris and Danielle were given a choice. He could have a tracheotomy or an open airway reconstruction.

“We didn’t get much time to decide — only a couple hours,” Danielle recalled.

But they chose the open airway construction, which opened Tristan’s trachea, removed as much of the hemangioma as possible, grafted a portion of his rib cartilage to rebuild the airway and put it all back together again. He was heavily sedated and on a ventilator for a week. His first Christmas was spent in the pediatric intensive care unit.

The family once again stayed in the Ronald McDonald House, which is only a block and a half away from the hospital. A group of doctors prepared Christmas dinner for the families who were there.

“Santa came, and there were a lot of people there,” Danielle said.

She said she appreciated having people to talk with. The family is still in contact with some families of preemies that they met while at the house.

The day after he was taken off the ventilator, Tristan once again stopped breathing and his heart stopped. The medical staff soon got everything under control again. A gastric feeding tube was put in to protect his airway and surgery performed to wrap the top of his stomach around his esophagus to protect against reflux.

“The feeding tube really freaked us out,” Chris said.

Danielle didn’t come home once to Albert Lea between Dec. 19 and Feb. 5. Chris continued to work at his job in Fairmont, joining Danielle in Rochester whenever possible.

Since Tristan was discharged on Feb. 1, 2009, he has had to go back to Rochester about every four weeks for a bronchoscopy. Danielle said he’s been in the operating room almost 30 times. Sometimes, doctors need to trim the hemangioma scar tissue, she said, and he has a one- or two-day stay in the hospital.

Tristan has now been without his feeding tube for five or six months.

“He took nothing by mouth until June 2009,” he said. “He needed clean bronchioscopies. Then he needed to re-learn how to suck, swallow and breathe.

“Him eating an animal cracker was huge,” Danielle added.

His larynx was partially paralyzed, but Danielle and Chris tried everything, and it’s now fully functional.

“The occupational therapist told me a lot of parents would have given up,” Danielle said.

Tristan is now 20 months old and growing, eating foods with bold flavors, his mother said. Getting to eat the McDonald’s chocolate chip cookies was “every boy’s dream.”

All the time in the hospital put him behind developmentally — he was 8 or 9 months old before he sat up and about 8 months when he rolled over — but thanks to regular physical and occupational therapy sessions, he’s catching up very well, Danielle said. He’s now taking a few steps.

The Registers do not take the simple things — like being able to hold their child — for granted, they said. When he was on a ventilator, they couldn’t even touch him, because he would know they were there and start crying and then his throat could become irritated and swell up. When they took him home, they couldn’t let him cry for the same reasons.

For a time, doctors suggested he wear a helmet to correct the flattening of his head that occurred from so much time in bed. They finally gave up because of his screaming, they said.

The Registers are careful about keeping Tristan healthy, which means keeping him away from people who are sick. Danielle works very limited hours at Sterling Drug.

Tristan’s had more excitement in his 20 months of life than most toddlers do. But his family’s more than happy to share his miraculous story as a way to give back to the Ronald McDonald House for making them feel so welcome and cared for at a difficult time in their lives.