It was so small yet so dangerous

Francesca's little boy Leo was usually a ray of light. So what was wrong with him?
Steven McConnell 2013

Francesca Lever, 28, from Marrickville, NSW, shares in her own words how her little boy Leo nearly died after swallowing an everyday item…

An almighty scream pierced the silence. Dashing from the kitchen into the hallway, I found my little boy Leo, nine months, crying on the floor. ‘It’s okay,’ I soothed, pulling him into my arms.

But try as I might, I just couldn’t get my son to settle. He was normally such a happy chap but that day it seemed there was nothing I could do to quieten him. I’ll give him a bath, I decided later that evening.

And as I splashed the warm water over his tummy, I realised a cough he’d caught earlier in the week had now worsened. Leo’s chest rattled as he took a breath and his forehead felt feverish. The poor little mite was obviously a bit under the weather.

But try as I might, I just couldn’t get my son to settle.

That night, he cried in my arms but I figured it was just a common bug that he’d fight off in time. But two days later, Leo seemed even worse. He was barely eating, and what he did eat came right back up. As the nasty cough was still there too, my hubby Stewart, 33, and I decided Leo needed to see a doctor. The trouble was, it was Easter weekend and the clinics were shut.

Not wanting to wait, Stewart and I took Leo to hospital. ‘It sounds like croup,’ said the doctor, listening to his chest. I felt relieved as we were prescribed steroids for Leo’s inflamed throat. And the next day, he seemed much brighter.

Little Leo just wasn’t getting better. (Credit: supplied)

To celebrate the holiday, Stewart and I took him and his big brother Lachie, three, on an Easter egg hunt. But back home that afternoon, Leo relapsed. He was feverish again and that continued for the next two days.

On the Tuesday evening, I put my boy to bed as normal, but in the night he woke really distressed. Lying him next to me, I tried to soothe him. But suddenly, he let out a terrifying noise. It sounded like he was choking. Was he struggling to breathe?

I told Stewart we had to go back to the hospital, and that night Leo was monitored on a ward while I fretted beside him. Fortunately he was stable and at 6am the doctor said he could be discharged. But then she said something else. ‘Do you think Leo could have swallowed something he shouldn’t have?’

I thought about it and shook my head. We’d been weaning him on to solid food but he hadn’t eaten anything unusual. But that night, as I tried to feed my bub some corn, the doctor’s words rang in my ears. Leo was hungry. He was trying to eat. But the corn kept coming back up. Something was stopping him.

Suddenly I had an overwhelming feeling that I had to get him back to hospital. Bundling him into the car as fast as I could, I headed to the emergency department. ‘I want an X-ray,’ I said to the doctor, and one was quickly arranged.

The x-ray showed immediately that something was there that shouldn’t have been. (Credit: supplied)

As the black and white image of Leo’s chest came on the screen, I could instantly see something was wrong. There in the middle of his chest was a white circle that shouldn’t have been there. My bub had something stuck. But what?

‘It could be a $1 coin but it could also be a battery,’ the doctor said, and suddenly I had a flashback. Shortly before the day Leo had started crying in the kitchen, I’d seen a silver button battery on the counter. Had it fallen on the floor and had Leo put it in his mouth? Should I have thought of that sooner? Guilt gripped me as I realised he didn’t have croup at all…

‘This is an emergency. We need to get him into surgery,’ a specialist told me, explaining that when a battery is trapped in the oesophagus, saliva causes a reaction that leads to the tissue around it being burned. It could take just two hours to cause irreparable damage or even death.

‘But Leo swallowed it six days ago!’ I cried, distraught. Five minutes later, Leo was being rushed into surgery and after an anxious hour, the surgeon came out to say he’d discovered exactly what we’d feared. A button battery and a lot of food stuck in Leo’s oesophagus.

‘This is an emergency. We need to get him into surgery.’

The food pipe was very swollen and the battery had eroded away a lot of the tissue. ‘It’s the worst case we’ve seen. There’s a chance he could need an oesophagus transplant,’ the doctor told us. Tears filled my eyes. My poor baby…

For the next eight days Leo remained in intensive care, under sedation, while I spent every waking minute by his side, willing him to be strong. Finally he was woken, but he still remained in hospital for another three weeks. He needed to be tube fed for seven weeks while his oesophagus recovered, and thankfully, it did heal and he didn’t need a transplant.

Leo with Francesca, and Lachie with dad Stewart. (Credit: Steven McConnell 2013)

It was only afterwards, when Stewart and I racked our brains that we remembered where the battery had come from. Stewart had a light for his bike that needed a new one and it’s likely Lachie knocked it on to the floor accidentally. We suspect that Leo, seeing something so shiny, couldn’t resist putting it in his mouth!

Both my hubby and I feel awful about what happened, but we also realise it was just a terrible accident. Thankfully, today Leo is a happy 17-month-old. He still has an inquisitive nature but I make sure I keep a close eye on him when he’s toddling around.

I shudder when I think about our boy’s near miss. I’m just pleased I’ve got my adventurous and happy little Leo back.

Published in issue 52, 2014

Battery danger

– Across Australia, around four children a week are taken to hospital with an injury related to button-shaped lithium batteries.
– Almost 80 per cent of cases reported last year involved toddlers. Sadly, in Queensland, four-year-old Summer Steer died after swallowing a battery.
– It is unlikely a child will be able to remove a battery from a toy that meets Australian Standards. However, regulation is less rigorous in everyday household items such as remotes, car keys, scales and watches.
– Parents are advised to keep batteries out of sight of children, make sure battery compartments are secure and go to emergency immediately if a child is suspected of swallowing a battery.

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