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Into the Mouths of Babes

By John Kelly
Friday, December 17, 2004; Page C08

If a natural or manmade object can be swallowed by a kid, it probably has been swallowed by a kid.

A penny? Please. Some kids treat them like chewing gum.


Doctors removed the football-shaped medallion intercepted by this boy's esophagus. (Children's Hospital)

_____Children's Campaign_____
Washington Post columnist John Kelly is raising money for the Children's National Medical Center, one of the nation's leading pediatric hospitals. You may make a tax-deductible contribution online anytime between Nov. 29th and Jan. 21st. Thank you for your support.
_____By John Kelly_____
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A safety pin? Uh-huh. Both open and closed.

A battleship? Yes.

Of course I don't mean a 50,000-ton, Iowa-class battleship -- even the most orally fixated toddler would have trouble getting that down. I'm talking about those tiny plastic battleships from the children's game of the same name. You know: "You ate my battleship!"

As an attending physician in the emergency medicine and trauma center at Children's Hospital, Christina Johns has seen it all.

"This is my favorite story," Dr. Johns told me. "A child came in with what looked like a coin stuck in the esophagus."

An X-ray was ordered. It showed a round object lodged about halfway down -- a nickel, perhaps.

It wasn't going down and it wasn't coming up, so the child, a 4-year-old boy, was sedated, and an emergency room physician went a-huntin' with an esophagoscope.

"It's a little grabber," said Dr. Johns, an instrument with a pincer at one end and a trigger operated by the doctor at the other.

Down the throat it went. The object was retrieved and brought into the light, where it was revealed to be a token for the MARTA, Atlanta's subway system. After it was removed, the surgeon took it out to the boy's waiting parents, flipped it to them and said, "Next time you're in Atlanta, here's your subway token."

The parents replied: "But we've never been to Atlanta!"

Just more proof that the insides of kids are as interesting as the outsides.

Dr. Johns said that in most cases, swallowed objects pass harmlessly through the child's system. Sometimes if something is stuck in the esophagus, the patient will be fed bread, which, as it's swallowed, can help move the object down into the stomach.

And once it's there, you're pretty much home free, said Dr. Johns, no matter what the object is. An open safety pin can travel through the intestines, no problem.

"We tell the parents to just keep an eye out in the stool," she said.

Ah, the peculiar joys of parenthood.

Dr. Johns said many surgeons and radiologists keep copies of X-rays that show unusual items lodged inside their young patients. I gave her a copy of a story that ran in The Washington Post on May 7, 1960. It was about nurse Mary O'Sullivan, supervisor of the Children's Hospital operating room, who since 1944 had been collecting items removed from children.

The objects -- about 100 in all -- were put on display near the old hospital's entrance for visitors to marvel at. The exhibit included: toy bells, a buckle, a diamond wedding ring, a drapery hook, a hot dog, a can opener key, a lipstick case top, a toy automobile, a mechanical pencil, a ballpoint pen, coins (pennies, a nickel, a quarter), safety pins, a teddy bear eye, a thimble, a toy wristwatch. . . .

Dr. Johns had never heard of the collection and didn't know if it was languishing in some forgotten corner of the hospital.

She was certain of one thing, though: "I would love to see it."

Reaching Deep for Children's Hospital

It all works out in the end.

That could be the motto of doctors who deal with most swallowed items. I hope it's the motto of this year's Children's Hospital fundraising drive as well. We're nowhere near the end yet. We have five weeks to go, so there's plenty of time for it to all come together.

If you'd like to help ensure that kids who have swallowed something they shouldn't -- whether it's a coin or a poison -- get help, consider making a tax-deductible donation to Children's Hospital.

Our goal by Jan. 21 is $600,000.

So far, we've raised $97,835.33.

Here's how to contribute: Make a check or money order payable to "Children's Hospital" and mail it to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

To contribute by credit card online, go to www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital and click on "Make a Donation." You'll be greeted by a pop-up that takes you right to the donation page.

To contribute by Visa or MasterCard by phone, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200, then punch in KIDS and follow the instructions.

Don't forget: Join me today at 1 p.m. for my weekly online chat, where we talk about, well, anything, really. Go to www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.


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