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It wasn’t a fish bone

Back in August, I made a list of my 18 visits to the emergency room over the course of my life, which included:

2011: Bay leaf caught in throat (ambulance)

Readers asked about this item, wondering what the hell happened. Here is the story:

Back in the fall of 2011, Elysha and I were having lunch with one of my college friends. I was eating clam chowder when an object became lodged in my throat. It wasn’t blocking my airway completely, but it was most definitely stuck and causing me to struggle to breath. Based upon what I was eating, we assumed that it was a fish bone or a bit of a shell.

I began coughing. Then the coughing became hacking. Then wheezing.  I drank a glass of water in an effort to dislodge it. Then I drank another and another and another.

Still I coughed and hacked and struggled to breath.

Eventually the manager arrived at the table and offered assistance. We were sitting in the middle of the dining room, so my coughing was undoubtedly creating a scene. The manager led me through the dining room (with Elysha in tow) to a closed-off bar area where, before I knew what was happening, one of the waitstaff began to administer the Heimlich maneuver on me.

Ironically, Elysha and I had just been re-certified in CPR the day before, so I knew his attempt at this procedure was poorly executed. Since I was coughing and speaking, the Heimlich maneuver should never have been applied in the first place, but the way the man administered it was even worse. He wrapped his arms around my chest and began squeezing, lifting me off my feet as he did. This did nothing for the bone lodged in my throat but hurt like hell and made it even harder to breath.

Between gasps, I begged for him to stop.

A moment later, an ambulance was called.

The manager led me and Elysha through the kitchen to a loading dock at the back of the restaurant. I initially thought the manager was being helpful, but I soon realized that he was just trying to get me as far away from the other customers as possible and avoid having an ambulance parked in the front of the restaurant.

Seconds later, the ambulance arrived. Paramedics placed me to a stretcher and began taking my vital signs. I overheard one whisper to the other that I had “decreased breath sounds on the left side.”

I asked them to either share this information with me or do a better job of whispering, because they were freaking me out.

I was loaded into the ambulance. Elysha climbed in alongside me, and we were off.

I was brought to the University of Connecticut Health Center, which was thankfully just a few minutes down the road. Doctors first attempted to use forceps to dislodge or retrieve the object. My throat was sprayed with a numbing agent, four doctors and nurses held me down in order to counter my gag reflex, and a fifth jammed a set of long, metal metal forceps down my throat.

It was awful. Painful and frightening and exhausting.

This process continued, off and on, for nearly an hour.

When this failed, a doctor inserted smaller arthroscopic forceps, complete with a camera and clippers, through my nose and down into the throat in order to remove the object.

It sounds horrifying, and it initially was, but that scope was soon put up my nose and down my throat so often that it became fairly normal. Just a thin, little snake sliding around in my skull.

It was eventually determined that the object was too large to bring back up through my nose, so it was back to the original forceps.

Numbing agents were applied again. More attempts to reach down my throat were made. I was worked on for more than three hours before it was determined that I would require surgery. Fearful that the object might end up in my lung if not removed soon, the doctors would make an incision from the top of my throat down to my chest to remove the object.

“Depending on where it’s lodged, we might have to crack the chest” one doctor explained.

This sounded insane to me. I was going to have my throat cut open and maybe my chest cracked for a fish bone?

With Elysha by my side, they began rolling me from the emergency room to the surgical floor. As they rolled, I began to panic. I couldn’t believe this was happening.

“Stop,” I said.

To their credit, they did.

“Have we tried everything?” I asked. “Take a second and think. Is there anything else we could possibly do before you cut me open? Can we think outside the box?”

To their credit, everyone was quiet for a moment, and then one of the nurses said, “Well, we’ve never tried to slide the arthroscopic forceps down someone’s throat before.”

“Well,” I said. “Let’s try that.”

Instant excitement swept the team. If it worked, this would be a new procedure.  A new use for a medical instrument. Other doctors were called to observe. Two video cameras – the large, old fashioned kind – were brought in to record the procedure. About a dozen doctors in all jammed themselves into a small examination room where the procedure would be attempted, pushing Elysha to the far corner of the room.

Once again, a handful of doctors held me down to counteract my gag reflex as the snake-like device was slid down my throat and a doctor, staring into the eyepiece, poked and prodded. A minute later, the scope was retracted. Trapped in its tiny forceps was a dried bay leaf.

Not a bone or a shell.

Just a leaf, which should have been removed prior to serving me the chowder but was not.

The room erupted in cheers. For a moment, I was entirely forgotten. I looked across the room, through a crowd of excited doctors, and made eye contact with Elysha. She looked exhausted, but she was smiling.

I spent about six hours at the medical center that day, and though I probably could have sued the restaurant, I did not.

In retrospect, I wish I had.

Nevertheless, I learned something very valuable that day:

There is nothing wrong with questioning your doctor. Had I not stopped that gurney from rolling into the operating room, I would’ve ended up with an incision in my throat or even worse. It was panic that caused me to stop the doctors that day and ask them to find a different solution, but in the future, it will be the knowledge that I can play an active and potentially helpful role in my medical care.

A doctor informed me that I would likely end up in a medical journal, which did not excite me as much as it seemed to excite him.

It also wouldn’t be the last time I was the subject in a medical journal. Years later, when canine scabies managed to burrow under my skin – something never seen before in a human being – a professional photographer was called into the dermatologist’s office to take photographs of my forearms for an eventual medical journal article.

Such is my life.

For the record, I never saw my college friend again. This was the first time she and I were reconnecting after more than a decade, but once I left the table for the bar area and loading dock and ambulance, I lost track of her, and we never spoke again.

Such is my life.

One bay leaf in top view