Story last updated at 4:49 p.m. Thursday, August 15, 2002

Heartbreak, hope spring from effects of alcohol on unborn child

Family faces challenge of FAS

by Carey James
Staff Writer

photo: news
  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
Ovan Ishmael, a 9-year-old child with FAS, shares a quiet moment with adopted mother, Donna.  
Ovar Ishmael acts like a typical 18-month-old.

He still doesn't talk, but he has learned to take off his own shoes and jacket and put them away. He's still in diapers, must be spoon-fed and throws tantrums, but he's learned the power of a kiss.

The only problem is Ovar is 9.

In his brain are holes, caused by his biological mother's constant drinking during pregnancy. When he was born, his blood-alcohol level was 0.283, more than three times the legal limit for driving. Nurses who cared for him during those first days thought for certain he would die, said his adoptive mother, Donna Ishmael.

Initially released to his family's care, Ovar soon returned to the hospital with a host of medical problems, at which point he was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome. The first three years of his life were spent in a foster home, but that situation didn't work out. Donna, a former health care worker, initially took Ovar for a couple of weeks when he was 3 1/2. Those first weeks were baffling, she said.

"The first week, I was just like, 'Get him out of my house,'" she said. "He didn't walk, he didn't sleep, he spit on the floor and rubbed his face in it."

With no experience in FAS, Donna said she did not understand what was going on with young, peach-skinned boy. But after a two-week stay, when the former foster parents decided they could not take Ovar back, Donna and her family decided to take over his care as foster parents.

"(Division of Youth and Family Services) told me if you can love him and accept him, that's what he needs," Donna said, adding that when he first arrived, Ovar wouldn't even let anyone hold him.

Initially, Donna said, she read and did everything she could to learn more about FAS. But the more she learned, the more she realized that Ovar's situation was so much more severe than many FAS cases. Medical problems had the two constantly going to the hospital.

Eventually, she said, she learned that many of the answers she was seeking may never be found. She said she plays detective a lot, instead, trying to sort out each problem Ovar displays as it comes up.

Ovar becomes obsessed over certain things, like the kitchen sink or digging his fingers into the coffee table. Light switches are a big allure, and most of the switches in the house are covered to keep him from wearing them out.

Donna said the family has learned to choose their battles, however.

"He's just like a constant work in progress," she said. "There are some days I think I have a clue, and there are days I think, 'Who are you?'"

A strong network of support has helped immensely, Donna said. Ovar attends Paul Banks Elementary, and his teachers and care workers communicate with her through a notebook they send back and forth with him. Donna said her family's support is equally crucial.

"There are days he just literally sits on you for six hours," she said. "There are not things at my age I imagined I would be doing."

While Ovar's case is extreme, one Alaska child in 1,000 is born with FAS. Nationwide, 5,000 babies are born each year with FAS, and another 50,000 with other fetal alcohol effects, which are seldom diagnosed.

Analysts estimate that extra costs for an FAS child range from $1 million to $5 million over their lifetime, since most diagnosed with FAS end up in state custody. One federal report estimated that fetal alcohol damage costs U.S. taxpayers $2.1 billion per year.

Beyond the dollar costs, studies indicate that fetal alcohol-induced brain damage is a major factor in crime. People with FAS are impulsive and have poor judgment. Experts believe they are more likely than others to act inappropriately, steal, lie, be involved in sex offenses, be abused, and have unplanned children they cannot care for.

While some impacts of alcohol on development are obvious, others are much more subtle. According to Margaret Parsons-Williams, coordinator of Frontier Community Services, an FAS diagnosis and outreach program founded as part of a state initiative, many alcohol-affected children have normal IQs, but suffer from behavioral problems. Links are being made to attention deficit disorder and other learning disabilities and alcohol exposure.

In fact, effects of drinking while pregnant can vary greatly depending on what trimester and even what day the drinking occurs.

"If a woman binge-drinks in week five, the child may have a deficient heart," Parson-Williams said. If the drinking occurs on another day or week, it could affect another part of development.

Parson-Williams said the biggest myth regarding FAS is that it is only a problem for chronic drinkers. Actually, she said, even the occasional drinker can negatively affect their child's development.

For Ovar, who doctors speculate was exposed to alcohol consistently through his development, the impact to his brain development is severe.

Donna said she and others who work with him don't know how far he'll develop. At 9, he rarely plays with toys, although he enjoys his slide and swing set. He still doesn't chew his food, but he's learning a few signs to say when he wants more food and when he's full.

Even so, Donna said, she is realistic about Ovar's development.

"He's not going to pick up a Crayola and start coloring. We are still trying to get him to drink more. We are not setting him up for failure," she said.

Even so, Donna said she's never regretted becoming Ovar's caregiver. Last year, the family formally adopted the boy.

"He has the sweetest temperament," she said. "He's just a laid back, handsome little guy. Sometimes he starts laughing, and you wonder 'what is he thinking?'"