My daughter nearly died from choking on popcorn after being misdiagnosed by doctors for 5 weeks

I’m sharing this post so that other parents know the dangers of giving young children popcorn … and a reminder to always trust your gut instinct. I ignored my gut instinct and put all my trust in what doctors were telling me (because how could so many doctors get it wrong?) and it could have very well cost my daughter her life.

 

I didn’t think twice about giving my 3-year-old popcorn. She had eaten popcorn before; all my kids have grown up having popcorn in their lunchbox. I had no idea how dangerous it is for young children to aspirate on, or that children under 5 shouldn’t have popcorn at all.

My 3-year-old was happily sitting on the lounge chair eating a bowl of plain popcorn when she coughed and choked a little. I didn’t think anything of it and gave her a drink of water. Within minutes she developed a cough and started wheezing – not realising the seriousness of it or knowing that she had actually aspirated on popcorn. We watched her, and over the next 30 minutes her wheeze started to get worse, so we decided to take her to the emergency room. When she got there, her wheeze was quite scary, and she had loud stridor (which is a high-pitched whistling sound when breathing). Thinking back on it, I should have called an ambulance, but again I didn’t realise the seriousness of it at the time.

 

 

She was rushed into a resus area where a team of doctors were trying to figure out what was going on. I told them about the popcorn incident and explained what had happened soon after. They immediately administered steroids, adrenaline and started her on Ventolin bursts. I kept bringing up the popcorn incident, but the doctors and nurses didn’t seem to think it was connected because she was responding to treatment. She was admitted to hospital until she could go 3 hours without Ventolin, which took all night. They released her the following day with the diagnosis of a “sudden onset of asthma”. While I didn’t quite believe it, I accepted it, as every doctor we saw agreed it wouldn’t be the popcorn, because she improved with Ventolin throughout the night. They told us that if it was the popcorn, she wouldn’t have improved with Ventolin and treatment.

 

 

A few days went on and she had a terrible wheeze and was struggling to breathe once again. I took her back to the emergency room and she was seen by another doctor. When I mentioned the popcorn, he said it could very well be that she aspirated on popcorn but unlikely, because she was responding to Ventolin. I asked if we could get an x-ray done to rule out the popcorn, but I was told it wouldn’t show on the x-ray so there would be no point to it. The doctor assured me if it was the popcorn, that it wouldn’t be dangerous. He got a second opinion from a more senior doctor, who agreed. It was another short stay with bursts of Ventolin. She was released again with an outpatient appointment to be reviewed by an ENT.

Two weeks on, she was still having these breathing issues and seemed to have a constant wheeze. I took her to her ER again and they just put her back on steroids and said to maintain Ventolin when needed.

Three weeks after she first choked, I was over it and sick of watching her struggle to breathe. She couldn’t run, swim or play because she would struggle, so I took her back to the ER. The doctor was frustrated with me and assured me she was fine and to keep up the Ventolin when needed.

 

 

Remember, my daughter was previously healthy with no asthma symptoms. I knew this wasn’t normal, so booked an appointment with my GP who was really concerned after listening to her chest, so sent us for an immediate chest x-ray. The x-ray showed she had pneumonia and inflammation on her lung. My GP was straight on the phone to a private respiratory specialist requesting they see my daughter urgently. She was put back on steroids, antibiotics and told to keep up the Ventolin while we waited to see the specialist.

 

We had to wait one long week to see the specialist (now on week 5) and as soon as he listened to her chest and looked at the x-ray, he sent us straight back to the emergency room with a stern letter for them to finally treat her and investigate further. That afternoon she was taken into emergency surgery to remove the piece of popcorn that she had in fact aspirated on 5 weeks earlier. It was too late! The damage was done. The popcorn had caused some damage to her lung because it sat there for 5 long weeks and slowly started breaking down.

I don’t want to think about what could have happened if I didn’t take her to see the private specialist. I regret not pushing more for an x-ray at the start and implementing Ryan’s rule. Ryan’s rule is a process in Queensland where families can raise concerns if they feel like their child isn’t receiving the care they require, or symptoms are getting worse. Please remember to always trust your gut instinct and to advocate if needed for your child. Doctors can and do get it wrong all the time and us as parents know our children and know when something is off with them.

 

12 Comments

  • I empathise more than you can think. My daughter (3 at the time) choked on a piece of chicken Kiev at dinner one night. She was fine in herself, but every time she ate or drank anything larger than a fingertip width she would automatically spit it up.
    I put her to bed, thinking it had something to do with her gag reflex. In the morning she had a teaspoon of yoghurt and it came straight back up. I called Health Direct and they sent an Ambulance. Upon arrival in emergency the doctor tried to convince me multiple multiple times that she had a vomiting bug. I refused that to be true and demanded an X-ray (they said the same thing- can’t see it), but after a gastroenterologist sat with us for 5 mins and watched her try to eat tiny pieces of bread and regurgitating immediately, she went under for a gastroscope. Low and behold, the piece of Kiev was lodged. Had it have dislodged, she would have aspirated.
    These things are so easily overlooked but when you put it all together the situation can be dire.
    Good for you for persisting and pressing for more to be done xxxxxx

  • I really feel for you and your daughter. That is a terrible thing to go through. I agree 100% a parents instincts are there for a reason and we should insist on them doing all they can to reassure us. My daughter was let down by doctors who failed to test her for jaundice despite my constant concerns and finally when they did test her they mentioned she could have brain damage as her levels were off the charts. Fortunately she is fine now but I knew she wasn’t right I should have insisted.
    Please get a second opinion or insist on investigations if you feel something isn’t right.
    Thanks for sharing your story. I’ll be avoiding pop corn for the kids from now on. X

  • Ryan’s Rule is something all parents in QLD should know about. I lost my first son because a number of doctors, registrars and midwives wouldn’t listen to me or my concerns. A comedy of errors resulted in my first born son having his skull fractured. If they had listened to me, he would be alive. Ryan’s Rule, if you’re a parent in QLD – or anyone in QLD you should know about it.

  • wow. I had no idea popcorn could be a game dangerous! we eat popcorn almost daily! I just threw it all out. Thank you for sharing your experience! Praying for God’s miraculous healing and total restoration for your baby’s lung!

  • sorry about the typos! what i meant was:

    wow. I had no idea popcorn could be so dangerous! we eat popcorn almost daily! I just threw it all out. Thank you for sharing your experience! Praying for God’s miraculous healing and total restoration for your baby’s lung!

  • This is very scary, I had no idea that this could happen. Good for you for keep bringing her back, I fear I wouldn’t have been advocating as well as you did. Despite bad experiences, for some reason I still seem to trust the doctors easier answers. I need to pay more attention to my gut. Thank you for sharing

  • Oh my goodness, POPCORN did this? How terribly frightening. I’m so glad you kept pushing and got to the bottom of it. 🙏 And it just goes to show what mother’s intuition and a good GP can do…

    My little girl (now also 3) was diagnosed with Leukeamia the week before Christmas. Finally, after taking her to her usual GP a few times, I took her to my own GP who sent us for the urgent blood test that had her in Emergency that afternoon getting the blood transfusion that saved her life (her symptoms presented like a bad cold but her haemoglobin was low to the point of potential cardiac arrest). She’s still on the long road to recovery but… she’s still with us!! (Obviously my family is incredibly grateful for the vigilance of the GP who took my concerns seriously).

    Also… I know how it feels when you look back on things and wish you had stamped your foot sooner or louder. It’s hard though. We all want to trust the experience and wisdom of our doctors. You should be proud that you persevered. Thank goodness you did.

  • I literally feel sick reading this. An xray should have been one of the first things done on first visit to emergency especially with anything respiratory. I think you were brushed off. The ED drs have a lot to answer to.

  • This happened to me with my 3.5yr old boy. Missed diagnosed with asthma who previously to getting sick never had asthma. He had Pneumonia but they said it was respiratory airway disease. Four weeks later he was rushed to ER again and same result. Asthma. But a senior doctor listened to his chest and confirmed pneumonia. By now he was at the early stages of sepsis and the dr said this could of very well been fatal. Scariest time of my life.

  • Thanks for sharing. I hope she is feeling a lot better?! So glad you kept pushing. I’m wondering if there is something about popcorn that makes it particularly dangerous? Can children and adults aspirate on any number of foods? Thank you.

  • Thanks for sharing this and am glad that you were listened to in the end. Just like to point out that Ryans’s rule can be used for adults too, not just children.

  • I’m so sorry this happened to you and your family, as a Paediatric Registered Nurse, I always always listen to the parents, if they are worried, I am worried.
    To the person advising an xray should have happened on the first visit, we don’t do that as 99% of the time, if a child responds to ventolin it is asthma and an xray doesn’t change treatment and just exposes a child to unnecessary radiation. It’s the clinical standard not to xray a child with asthma symptoms on a first presentation… I agree it should have happened when it was obvious your daughter wasn’t getting any better. I’m not trying to make excuses, just trying to explain why things don’t happen that people expect.
    REACH is what is used in NSW, and even as a nurse when I have done all I can do to advocate on the patient’s behalf and doctors still won’t listen to me, I have told the parents to call a REACH call. Unfortunately, in any of these instances (REACH< Ryans Rule, etc..) all you will get will be an independent group of senior doctors to review your child, given that you had already had an ED dr go over your daughter's case with a senior dr, I'm not sure if this would have changed your outcome to be honest… I sincerely hope your daughter recovers quickly and you can put all this behind you x

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