September 9, 2020
Topics: Donors, Pulmonology, About Us

Sawyer Aerodigestie Full Size 2020.09.09
Riley Kid Sawyer Vargo-Moran

Eating, drinking and breathing are some of the body’s most essential functions needed for survival.

So what happens when those basic actions become a child’s worst problem?

Thanks to donors, parents in this stressful situation now have a resource at Riley that gets them on the fast track to answers and solutions. “Your gift is the personalized touch of coordinated care,” says Karen McCarthy, RN, the Riley Aerodigestive Clinic Coordinator. “You are helping us lessen families’ burdens.”


Riley Children’s Foundation donors provided funding to help Riley Children’s Health establish a comprehensive Aerodigestive Program within the past five years. The goal of this quickly growing program is to bring specialists together to solve problems for kids with complex airway and gastroenterology issues that have become disruptive to their lives. Currently, the Aerodigestive Program includes Riley specialists from the pulmonary, gastroenterology, Ear, Nose & Throat (Otolaryngology) and speech therapy teams, who see patients together in in a multidisciplinary clinic.

“We see kiddos in the clinic, for example, with swallowing issues or reflux issues that affect the respiratory system,” says McCarthy, whose position was created with funding from Riley donors. “You come to clinic, meet all our team; each of the physicians evaluates the child. The speech therapist does swallow evaluations, and then they form a plan.”

The team currently includes a group of Riley speech therapists led by Katie Schmitt, Bruce Matt, M.D., from Otolaryngology, Ryan Pitman, M.D., from gastroenterology, and Heather Muston, M.D., from pulmonary, who serves as Medical Director of the Aerodigestive Program and Bronchoscopy Program. “We have really become a medical home for these complex patients,” says Dr. Muston. “It can be really incredibly stressful for parents. We can give them a definitive answer and help them move forward.” Dr. Pitman adds, “This program is an excellent resource for those children who have complex disorders affecting both the gastrointestinal (GI) and respiratory tracts. The complexities of the simple entry to these tracts require a multi-disciplinary team to consider, discuss and plan individualized therapies for each patient.”


The plans often lead to the operating room, where the physicians from different teams work together to perform different types of scopes during the same anesthesia procedure. That helps them see whether there are structural anomalies contributing to the child’s issues.

When those scopes and surgeries happen, McCarthy is typically right there in the waiting room with parents, helping them understand and process the surgeons’ updates. She has worked in nursing since 1989. Helping families navigate complex medical journeys is a true passion. “I love being able to help them understand and feel like they’re taken care of,” she says. “I feel lifted up when the parents are so thankful.”
Bringing all the specialists together has been a game changer for parents and kids according to McCarthy. “Prior to this clinic, you would see specialists separately. It’s much less burden on the families when they can see everyone at once.”

The program has made a world of difference for Sawyer Vargo-Moran from Mishawaka, Indiana. He was just an infant when feeding and breathing difficulties led his family to the Riley Aerodigestive team. They ultimately diagnosed him with reactive airway disease, and provided treatment and equipment that ended up helping Sawyer during a battle with COVID-19. “I feel in my own heart, if I had not gotten Sawyer down there, I don’t think he would have survived past a year old,” said his mother, Abbie. “It was just like open arms. It wasn’t like it was a job to them. It was almost like as soon as they admitted us, they were my family.” (Read more of Sawyer’s story here.)


The Riley Aerodigestive Program is now growing so fast, the team is expanding in order to care for more patients. The clinic now sees around 32 children each month from all parts of Indiana including South Bend.

This team’s vision is to begin including surgeons as needed during the initial clinic visits, so families who may need scopes or surgical interventions can ask those questions right away. They are also working on establishing a clinical database for patients in our Aerodigestive Program, and possibly joining the Aerodigestive collaborative. Tracking data on patients including their long-term outcomes helps health care professionals search for patterns and adjust treatment protocols to maximize effectiveness.

Gifts from generous donors who support Riley Children’s Foundation are literally making an impact everywhere you look at Riley Hospital for Children. This growing Aerodigestive Program is one of countless examples of the life-changing impact of your generosity.

Thank you for helping children eat, drink and breathe better so they can lead full and happy lives.


Riley Blogger

The Riley Blog is written and/or edited by members of the Riley Children's Foundation Communications Staff.

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