In honor of National Food Safety Education Month, I have a lesson learned story for all caretakers of children.
I have two kiddos, now five & seven. In the summer of 2018, the kids and I were enjoying a movie and some popcorn. My youngest, Forrest, started gagging (as little toddlers sometimes do) on some popcorn but he coughed it up very quickly and seemed fine. Later that evening, I heard a very soft wheezing sound coming from his chest. My mind went to the popcorn for a moment but then I thought maybe it was just the beginning of a cold. Fast-forward a few days and the wheezing sound remains but no other symptoms were apparent. He didn’t have a fever, runny nose, or cough. He seemed to play and laugh and eat the same as always. I still wasn’t terribly concerned, but my mind did drift back to that night of popcorn. I made a doctor’s appointment for later that week and took him in to get checked out.
The wheezing continued, but it was very soft. When I took our son to the doctor, they could barely hear anything. I mentioned the popcorn gagging, but initially they didn’t think that was it. The office ran some tests and called me the next day to bring him in for a nebulizer treatment. Our schedules didn’t allow for a next day appointment so we waited another couple of days to bring him in. The doctor didn’t seem concerned about the delay and neither did we. At this point, we were probably about a week and a half from the popcorn and film evening. I brought him into the doctor’s office for the nebulizer treatment fully expecting to drop him off at daycare and head back to work afterward, but the day didn’t go exactly as planned.
I have such huge appreciation for the pediatricians that take care of our son. When we came in for the treatment, I repeated the story again to a different doctor and mentioned that I was still hearing the wheezing with no other symptoms. She agreed that this was very odd and it wasn’t sitting with her well. She called Children’s Hospital to consult with them and they suggested we bring him in to get checked out by their ENT (Ear, Nose, Throat) team. To get seen by them, though, we had to go through the emergency room.
We arrived at Children’s Hospital in Aurora a little later that morning and checked into the ER. I had stopped home on the way there to pick up a few things in case we ended up there all day. They were expecting us, so it didn’t take long for a few different nurses and doctors to check him out. Of course, they couldn’t hear any wheezing at first and, at this point, I’m beginning to think this is a lot of hoopla for nothing. Then, finally, one doctor heard something faint on the left side of his chest. Still, no one seemed terribly concerned at this point.
The ENT team said that they were going to put a scope down his throat to get a better look but thought it was highly likely that they would find nothing. This was just a precaution to make sure nothing was wrong. Surgery was scheduled for later that evening to give space between his last meal and when he would receive anesthesia. The ENT team believed this would be quick– in and out in about 30-45 minutes. After a couple of hours with the surgical team, they were finally able to remove a popcorn kernel shuck (I think that’s what it’s called) from Forrest’s lung. The surgeon said it was the longest procedure they ever participated in (I sensed a bit of excitement about that on their part, but it was a bit of panic on my part).
I headed back to the recovery room to hold my little man for the next couple of hours while he woke up. He was crying and whining and couldn’t open his eyes for at least an hour. This was the only time this little guy was upset throughout our stay at the hospital. I know his throat was in pain and he was disoriented. I was just happy it was all over and that he was going to be fine. He completely woke up later that evening and ate dinner with me. We were asked to stay overnight because his oxygen levels had gone down and they wanted to keep him for observation and ensure that he did not get an infection since the popcorn shuck had been lodged in there for almost two weeks. We were discharged the next day without incident and he was back to his old self like nothing ever happened.
Being a parent or caretaker of children is tough. We really try to do our best for these little nuggets and we don’t always succeed. The hardest moment for me was when I had to walk out of the operating room while they were putting him under anesthesia and I could hear him screaming “Mom.” That memory is etched in my mind and gave me a whole new perspective on the importance of food safety. We were lucky this was a small incident compared to what it could have been. There were several years where popcorn was not allowed in our household.
Our doctors recommended no popcorn, grapes (even cut up), or nuts before five years old. I know this may seem extreme, but they mentioned that prior to this age kids don’t have the gag reflux maturity needed to prevent choking. Keep those kiddos safe and don’t feed your toddlers popcorn!