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MORGAN — Choking is one of the leading causes of unintentional death for children under the age of 5, according to the National Safety Council. Intermountain Healthcare physicians are warning parents after 32 alarming choking hazards in Utah last year involving young children. One Morgan family is grateful their toddler is still alive after a harrowing experience last August.
Less than 24 hours after bringing their new baby girl home, Nikelle and Dalan Judd realized their 22-month-old son Maverik was struggling to breathe.
"All of a sudden, I heard Maverik screaming and I could tell something was really wrong," Nikelle recalled, describing his labored breathing as wheezing. "I started just pounding his back seeing if I could just get whatever it was out."
"He was starting to turn blue and I was really getting worried at that point and Nikki called 911," Dalan said.
They believe Maverik aspirated a dry pinto bean from a sensory play bin. When the paramedics arrived, the EMT couldn't hear anything from his right lung. Dalan said Maverik was only getting 60 to 70 percent of the oxygen he needed. The EMT put him on an oxygen mask to prevent brain damage or even worse, death.
They rushed him to Intermountain Healthcare's McKay-Dee Hospital where doctors determined he needed advanced emergency care at Intermountain's Primary Children's Hospital. He was promptly flown there by medical helicopter. Because of precautions in place due to the coronavirus pandemic, Dalan couldn't accompany his son on the flight.
"That was probably one of the hardest moments at that point to say, 'You know, am I going to see him again?'" he said.
Nikelle was at home with her new baby and older son, desperately waiting for updates from her husband. "I just remember being in my kitchen and just literally falling to my knees just praying that my son would stay alive," she said through tears.
Since Maverik's oxygen levels continued to drop on the helicopter, they took him directly to surgery and connected him to ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) providing heart and lung bypass support outside of his body.
"Just do whatever you need to save our child," Nikelle remembered telling the doctors.
Dr. Albert Park, a pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist at University of Utah Health and Intermountain's Primary Children's Hospital, removed the bean which was lodged in Maverik's right lung through a tracheotomy after hours of surgery.
"These objects are really dangerous because as they get hydrated they'll actually expand in size and so they'll actually cause a complete airway obstruction if you allow it to," Park explained.
After 10 days in the hospital, Maverik was finally healthy enough to go home!
Park encourages parents to childproof their homes.
"That means really laying down and looking along the level of the child and seeing what sort of items might be sort of too tempting for them," Park described.
"We went through everything, and anything that was little that could be put down your throat, that could easily be inhaled on accident, was out of our house, like we don't have any more of those things," Nikelle said. "It's just amazing what these little people can see on the ground and find that we don't know, because we're so tall and they're so close to the ground. You just have to be so careful."
Park says hard candies, grapes, nuts, seeds, and even hot dogs can be dangerous. He says it's especially important for a child to be sitting when they are eating. "They shouldn't be running or playing or laying down while they're eating because that really sets them up for a bad situation in terms of choking," he said.
He said nonfood items like magnets, button batteries, and coins can be just as deadly. He says magnets can cause strangulation of the small intestine and batteries can get stuck in the esophagus and even leak, causing a horrific injury.
"I'd say the most common item that we have a child who needs to go to the operating room is due to a coin. They're shiny and so they're very attractive," Park said. "In this day and age, we really need to watch your children very carefully at all times," he said.
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"We're definitely much more observant, sitting right there like, 'Don't put these in your mouth!'" Dalan said.
If a child is choking and can't breathe, Park urges parents to start performing repeated solid blows to the back on children under 18 months of age or the Heimlich maneuver for older children. If the child is still breathing, he says it's actually safer to not touch the child to prevent making the situation worse.
"If the child is really not struggling, it's actually better not to touch the child because what you don't want to do is do these maneuvers and cause the foreign body to then lodge so it causes complete obstruction and then you're really in a big problem," he explained.
While swallowing is second nature to most people, Park says it's more complicated for children. "Because of the lack of maturity in the swallowing mechanism, and they don't have molars, at least the younger ones don't, and they may be also preoccupied as children will be in other things, they're much more likely to have choking events," Park said.
He said people often think of choking as food getting stuck in a child's upper throat, but says there are several ways a child's airways can be obstructed as illustrated by Maverik's story.
Park credit's Maverik's life to how quickly the paramedics responded to his situation. He says it can take only four minutes or less before brain damage or death can occur.
The Judds are grateful every day to still have Maverik and for the incredible care they received.
Dalan was so relieved when Maverik regained his energy and was back to his normal self after several days in the hospital. "He could give me a hug, he could say my name again and that was just the greatest thing ever," he said.
"The nurses would come in and they'd be like, 'I just heard his story. He's a walking miracle. It's amazing that he's alive,'" Nikelle said. "Every single day we're just trying to remember, 'We could have lost him, he could not be here right now.'"
Park encourages parents to refer to the American Academy of Pediatrics for guidelines on what age and what types of food are appropriate for children under 5 years old.