For more than a year, he had felt ill, inexplicably coughing up phlegm.
The British postal worker, a former smoker, had already been treated for pneumonia, but now doctors suspected it might be much worse — an x-ray had revealed a mysterious mass in one of his lungs, and it was suspected to be a possible tumor.
During a diagnostic procedure, doctors in Britain, who have documented the case in the British medical journal BMJ Case Reports, discovered a “mustard coloured foreign body” in the lung.
Paul Baxter, 50, who was identified in local news reports, said Thursday morning on BBC Breakfast that the doctors “managed to pull it up — and it came up and it came up and we were watching it on the screen and nobody could tell what it was.”
It was not a tumor.
It was, in fact, a tiny toy traffic cone from a Playmobil set that Baxter had apparently aspirated more than four decades earlier.
"Everybody just fell about laughing," Baxter said told BBC News.
In the case report, which was published late last week, the authors wrote that the tiny toy was found during a bronchoscopy, a procedure in which doctors insert a small camera into the airways.
It was the first time, the authors noted in the report, that a case had been reported in which a foreign object had been unknowingly lodged in someone's airways for such a long period of time.
“The diagnosis of TFB [tracheobronchial foreign body aspiration] in children appears to be delayed for more than 1 week in a small but significant proportion of children. However, a case in which the onset of symptoms occurs so long after initial aspiration is unheard of in the literature,” the authors wrote in the paper, noting the patient had not experienced symptoms until the previous year.
“This may be because aspiration occurred at such a young age that the patient’s airway was able to remodel and adapt to the presence of this foreign body.”
The patient later told doctors that he remembered getting a Playmobil set for his seventh birthday.
But, he told BBC News, “I don't remember eating them.”
“But obviously, I've had it in my mouth,” Baxter said. “And like the doctor said, I've inhaled it because normally if you swallow, it goes down the other pipe and passes through you normally. But no, this has been inhaled and going into my lungs.”
Once doctors removed the toy cone, the cough subsided.
“His symptoms improved markedly,” the authors said, “and he finally found his long lost Playmobil traffic cone in the very last place he would look.”