Dr. Barbara Marriage is stubborn. “Or as my father always said, a dog with a bone,” she laughs. What did he mean by that? “If I feel strongly about something, I just don’t give up,” she says. “It just takes a lot before I would back down and say ‘we can’t do this.’”
Barbara Marriage and Courtney Allgeier help kids with metabolic disorders get the nutrition they need to thrive.
That gift for perseverance has served her well in her career as a scientist—particularly in her work as Section Manager for Pediatric Clinical Research at Abbott. Together, Barbara and her colleague, Senior Scientist Courtney Allgeier, are responsible for clinical nutritional research for infants, children and new mothers. But one of the largest parts of their work—and the closest to their hearts—is overseeing the area of nutrition for children born with metabolic disorders, called “inborn errors of metabolism.”
Metabolism, for the layperson, is the process of how our bodies transform food and water into energy. “Metabolism is how your body reacts to nutrients,” Barbara explains. “It’s essential to health.” When children are born with a defect in metabolism, or an inherited metabolic disease, they are missing a digestive chemical that would normally allow them to metabolize a certain nutrient: a fat, an amino acid or a carbohydrate. If left untreated, metabolic errors can have drastic and wide-ranging effects on the child’s life—from developmental issues like slowed growth and mental retardation, to malnourishment, and in very severe cases, death.
But with the right nutritional solution, many of these conditions can be managed. Some elemental formulas and protein powders are developed to provide nutrients that the child’s body can metabolize. That’s where Barbara and Courtney come in. In addition to driving research and development to constantly improve these products, they’ve made it their life’s work to get them into the hands of the families who need them.
That’s no small feat. Because inborn errors of metabolism are relatively rare—instances range from one in 700 births to one in 300,000 births—resources for affected families in some parts of the world are few and far between. Nutritional products are often unavailable or local doctors may not be familiar with treating metabolic disorders. As two of the few leading authorities on the topic, Barbara and Courtney go well out of their way to help. They operate a 1-800 support line for international physicians, answering their nutrition questions so they can treat their young patients. They work as advocates for better education and visibility of metabolic disorders. And they do whatever they can to figure out a way to deliver the nutritional product to families in need, even if it means meeting up with them in person. “We try to equip them with all the tools they need to care for that child,” Courtney says.
“One of my most touching experiences involved a little boy in Russia who has PKU (Phenylketonuria, a rare disorder where the body can’t break down an amino acid called phenylalanine),” Barbara recalls. She met up with the boy’s grandfather in Chicago to advise him on nutrition products for his grandson. “His grandson’s health improved so dramatically that he took it upon himself at age five to learn enough English to send me a personal thank you video,” recalls Barbara. “To have a little boy struggle to learn a language and say thanks—that was so heart-warming. And today he’s healthy as can be.”
Though Barbara and Courtney both say their work is incredibly rewarding, Courtney says it’s not for everyone. The frustration of trying to help families many miles away can be stressful and take an emotional toll. “But I think you have to realize that as a person, you have to be able to do everything you can,” she says. “You need to go the extra mile for these families. It’s not fair that these children have disorders, that they should be limited in everything they do.”
But they emphasize that as long as they keep pushing, are relentless and never stop trying to find a way to help, nothing is more satisfying than having such an intimate impact on a child’s life. “You’ve kind of been a lifeline for them, you were there at that exact moment of need,” says Courtney. According to both Barbara and Courtney, it’s their life’s work—to help children not just survive, but thrive.
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