Doctors warn parents about child choking hazards after several alarming incidents

Posted at 8:50 AM, Jan 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-14 10:50:08-05

Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital physicians are warning parents about the dangers of choking hazards following 32 alarming choking emergencies this past year involving young children, including one life-threatening situation involving a 22-month-old toddler from Morgan, Utah.

People often think of choking as food getting stuck in a child’s upper throat, but doctors note there are several ways a child’s airways can become obstructed. In fact, choking is one of the leading causes of unintentional death for children under five years of age.

Zachary Kastenberg, MD, a pediatric trauma surgeon with University of Utah Health and Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital, says he often sees small items lodged further down a child’s airway that end up blocking off a lung. The 32 incidents so far this year resulted in emergency surgeries to remove various objects from the children’s airways.

“When an object gets lodged in the airway, the only way to get it out is with emergency surgery to quickly remove the blockage,” said Dr. Kastenberg. “If the object is large enough to completely block the airway it is a very dangerous, life-threatening situation.”

Some of the most dangerous choking hazards come from what doctors call high-risk foods for kids like nuts, seeds, hard candy, and especially beans. Dr. Kastenberg says dry beans are especially bad because once they get wet the bean can expand as they absorb water.

This happened to Dalan and Nikkelle Judd’s 22-month-old son, Maverick, in August, when he swallowed a bean they believe came from a sensory bin. His parents realized he immediately was experiencing trouble breathing.

“While he could still breathe, it was more like a wheezing and he kept coughing, but we didn’t know what happened,” said Dalan Judd. “We tried the Heimlich and it didn’t work so we called 911.”

Paramedics rushed Maverick to Intermountain McKay-Dee Hospital where doctors quickly realized he needed emergency care at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital.

While in route, the specialty pediatric team aboard the Intermountain Life Flight helicopter realized Maverick’s oxygen was dropping and recommended he go directly to surgery.

“Thankfully his parents acted quickly because if it had been just a short time later, we may not have had the outcome that we did,” said Ryan Oldroyd, a nurse with the Intermountain Life Flight pediatric team.

During Maverik’s surgery doctors discovered the bean was expanding and would soon obstruct Maverick’s airway completely. Dr. Kastenberg performed an emergency extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) bypass operation to allow Maverick’s blood to get the oxygen needed to survive.

Along with Dr. Albert Park, a pediatric ear, nose, and throat specialist at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital, the team then performed a tracheotomy to remove the bean, which by then had completely obstructed the airway. Maverik required 10 days of recovery at Primary’s, but then was able to go home to Morgan with his mom, dad, and siblings.

“I can’t say enough about the amazing team of caregivers who helped in every step to save this child’s life – one small delay or mistake and the outcome could have been very different,” said Dr. Kastenberg.

Sadly, other cases have not had the same positive outcomes.

Dr. Kastenberg and Dr. Park urge parents to be extra vigilant with young children and objects they can put in their mouths.

“The best preparation is prevention,” said Dr. Kastenberg. “Be aware of the dangers and prevent them.”

Here are some recommendations for parents:

– Safe proof your house from small objects. Before they even begin to crawl, look for things that could be picked up and put in your child’s mouth. Parents can even get down on a child’s level – checking in and under furniture.

– Supervise your children. You never know what could happen when you are not looking. If a child chokes on an object, the object stuck in their throat is not allowing oxygen to reach the brain. It only takes four minutes or less before brain damage or even death can occur.

– Be aware of other objects that can cause possible choking hazards. Young children naturally put things in their mouth. Watch for balloons, coins, marbles, toys with small parts, hair barrettes, beads, small balls, pen caps, and button batteries.

Parents should also be prepared if you find your child choking. In the event of an emergency call 911 immediately – with airway obstruction time is critically important.

The Judd’s couldn’t agree more.

“It’s hard to believe that if we had waited just a little bit longer we could have lost him,” said Nikkelle Judd. “We are so thankful for the doctors, nurses, and first responders who saved our son.”