When AJ Bombacino was 6 months old, he suffered a 45-minute seizure out of the blue.
“We were in complete shock, scared and confused,” said his father, Tony Bombacino.
AJ had no health ailments and no problems being a breast-fed baby until that incident that caught his mother, Julie Bombacino, visiting her mother in Ohio, and his father in Wisconsin on a fishing trip. They hurried to a children’s hospital in Toledo.
“That led to 72 hours of horror, diagnoses, big words, misdiagnoses, tears and desperation,” Tony Bombacino recalled.
Doctors told the couple that AJ had “malformations of his cortical development.”
“I’m sorry, what?” Julie Bombacino asked.
The couple pleaded for more information from doctors and turned to “Dr. Google,” as Julie described their frantic online searches.
“We were hearing and reading horrible things,” she said.
“We felt helpless,” her husband added.
The parents wondered what happened to their baby and what other doctors may have missed when he was born. Fearing for AJ’s future, they had him transferred by ambulance to a children’s hospital in Chicago to be closer to their Chesterton home.
“It was a scary drive,” Tony Bombacino said.
After a few days at that hospital, and more tests, AJ was allowed to return home. He had more seizures, causing him difficulty in swallowing.
“We thought he had reflux, or colic, or that he was just being a picky eater after all the trauma,” his father said.
“We were wrong,” his mother said.
A month after AJ’s initial seizure, his eating habits worsened. He was tested on swallowing, which led to him being listed as NPO, or nil per os, a Latin phrase meaning “nothing through the mouth” to avoid choking or aspiration of food into his lungs.
“They scared the heck out of us, and told us to consider a feeding tube,” Tony Bombacino said.
Within 72 hours, a feeding tube (called a G-tube) was surgically placed into AJ’s abdomen. A few days later, he completely lost his ability to suckle and swallow, so he could no longer be breastfed or nourished from a bottle. He has received 100 percent of his food and water — a “formula” — from a feeding tube ever since.
“Traditionally high in corn syrup, preservatives, additives, synthetic vitamins, cheap sources of protein, and a bunch of other ingredients you can’t pronounce,” his father said. “Beyond the nutritional makeup, it was the same thing for breakfast, lunch and dinner, day after day after day after day.”
His parents couldn’t imagine their boy subsisting on this formula for the rest of his life, even if it’s labeled as “nutritionally complete.” AJ wasn’t having it either. Over the following months, a dozen different formulas and methods were tried.
“Nothing worked,” his mother said.
“He vomited 10 times a day, he was miserable, he wasn’t growing, and he was continuing to have seizures,” his father added.
Tony and Julie Bombacino had an idea, born from desperation. What if they blended real foods, similar to what he would normally be eating, and fed him through his tube?
“Our dietitians and doctors looked at us like we were nuts,” Tony Bombacino said.
They tried it anyway. They bought a high-powered Vitamix blender and began experimenting with different foods.
“We started very slowly and then built on successes,” he said. “After a few days, AJ’s vomiting slowed and then stopped. He was less irritable. He started to have normal poops.”
“We couldn’t believe it,” Julie Bombacino said.
AJ hasn’t had another ounce of traditional formula since. It’s been seven years now. But this isn’t the only happy ending to the family’s story.
The couple also has a daughter, Luca, who’s two years older than AJ. When they planned a family trip to Disney World, they knew it would entail packing their trusty blender, specific foods for AJ, and pre-blending everything, among other laborious necessities.
“It sounded more like work than a vacation,” Tony Bombacino said.
They wondered if there was a prepackaged, travel-friendly meal option for people with feeding tubes, using shelf-stable “real food” without corn syrup or preservatives. They couldn’t find one, so during their vacation at Disney, they decided to open their own business, Real Food Blends.
It took more than two years, and half of their life savings, with endless nights of research, brainstorming, outreach, market studies and second-guessing to make it a reality.
“We figured out three different meal varieties, a manufacturing partner, warehousing, and nationwide shipping, and then we were off to the races,” Tony Bombacino said.
In early 2014, the couple produced their first 15,000 meals.
“We had no idea if any would sell,” Julie Bombacino said.
“We sold out in less than a month,” her husband added.
They produced 90,000 more meals and sold out in less than a month again, partially due to figuring out that their meals could be covered by medical insurance, and that home healthcare companies would carry and sell the meals.
Their little mom-and-pop business took off. They credit 7-year-old AJ, who is nonverbal and unable to walk, as the company’s CIO, “Chief Inspiration Officer.”
“His challenges don’t stop him from continuing to inspire us, our team, and our Facebook community of more than 100,000 people,” his mother said.
“I never could have guessed that our son was going to help me and Julie disrupt the multi-billion-dollar, tube-feeding nutrition market,” his father said.
“It’s surreal to think that just seven years after our idea, and five years after we were officially selling product, we have tens of thousands of happy customers, kids and adults,” he said, “and all while we continue to help our own son who eats Real Food Blends meals every day at school and home.”
“This has been the most unexpected, scary, challenging, rewarding and amazing journey,” Julie Bombacino said.
Watch a video of their story at www.RealFoodBlends.com/About.