N.L. man surprised to cough up Christmas decoration

Published on January 17, 2017

Geoff Meeker had seen the doctor for what he thought was a chest infection related to his asthma just a couple days before he had an intense coughing episode in the middle of the night. He was surprised when these plastic beads, originally from a Christmas decoration on his dog's collar, came up. — submitted photo

Geoff Meeker will tell you from the outset — this is probably going to be the strangest story you'll read all day.

It's a wonder he's perfectly fine, really, and not suffering from pneumonia or some other infection after what happened to him over the past few weeks.

Meeker is asthmatic and came down with a cold in November. Colds trigger his asthma, he says, and he's often left dealing with a cough and needing to use his inhaler long after the cold virus has disappeared. He braced himself for six weeks of a cough, as usual.

The cough did persist, but got worse instead of better, and became productive. Assuming it had developed into a chest infection — to which he's also no stranger, he says — he went to the doctor early last week.

"She listened to my chest and said it sounded all clear," Meeker says. "She didn't know what was causing the cough and she was hesitant to give me a prescription for antibiotics, but she did. She told me to hold onto it and go get a chest x-ray first, which I did right away."

In the middle of the night last Saturday, Meeker's cough woke him up. It seemed more intense than usual, and he got up to get his puffer. After a few minutes of coughing, something came up: a chain of tiny plastic gold beads common on Christmas ornaments, about 3/4 of an inch long. Meeker had no idea where it had come from and couldn't remember ever seeing it before.

"I went back to bed after that but I didn't get any sleep, because I was thinking, 'What just happened?,' " Meeker says, chuckling. He felt some irritation in his throat but the next day, his cough was gone.

On Monday, Meeker posted a picture of beads on Facebook with the story, trying to figure out what they are and where they came from. It wasn't long before he got the answer.

"I had a message from my dog's groomer with a picture of a little poinsettia ornament she had been putting on her clients' collars," Meeker said. He remembered his dog, Carm, had received one of the ornaments last year, and it had been packed away with the Christmas decorations after the holidays. Carm wore the ornament on her collar again this year, and sometime after Old Christmas Day, Meeker had taken it off and put it in his pocket — where he also had his asthma puffer.

Though he always keeps the cap on the mouthpiece on the inhaler, the beads likely found their way down through the open top, — where the small canister of aerosol medication goes in — and out through the tube along with the medicine when Meeker inhaled it, without him even feeling it.

Geoff Meeker reckons the beads he inhaled unknowingly got inside his capped asthma inhaler through the open top. — submitted photo

A couple of Meeker's Facebook friends commented on his post, saying they had done a similar thing with earwigs.

Meeker returned to the doctor on Monday for an unrelated visit, and mentioned what had happened.

"She was shocked," he says. "She brought up my x-rays results on the computer. It wasn't the actual picture, it was the report, but they didn't see (the beads). They might have missed it, or it's possible that (the beads were inhaled) after the x-ray, when it still hadn't transitioned from asthma."

What happened to Meeker isn't entirely unheard of. Last year, a mom of three in Manchester, England, inhaled a piece of a false fingernail through her inhaler, which had been capped in her purse. The nail caught in the back of her throat and caused her to bleed and choke until she was able to cough it up.

An Australian woman inhaled an earring from her uncapped inhaler in 2014, requiring her to undergo a surgical procedure to remove it from one of the main airways leading to her lungs.

It wasn't even the first time for Meeker, a former journalist, Telegram columnist, and owner of Jellybean Row Shop and Gallery in downtown St. John's. About a year ago he was in the gallery and needed a puff from his inhaler quickly, forgetting to remove the cap in his urgency. It shot down his throat and he was forced to give himself the heimlich maneuver, causing the cap to come up and go flying across the room.

The inhalation of foreign objects is a common accident, even without inhalers, though it's most often seen in toddlers who often inhale pieces of food, small toys and balloons (which can be fatal).  Common items inhaled by adults include pieces of food, bone fragments from meat or fish, small candy like Tic Tacs, pills and pieces of dental work.

Symptoms of an inhaled foreign object include choking, difficulty breathing, wheezing and coughing, and can result in pneumonia if not brought up. A medical procedure to remove the object may be necessary.

Meeker is hoping the sharing of his story will inspire others with asthma inhalers to check them.

"I'm not sure if there is any replacement for being really careful, but I think if there was some way the manufacturers could put a dome or something over the top (of the inhaler), it might make sense," he says.

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Geoff Meeker with his dog Carm (right) and his son's puppy Winston over the Christmas holidays. — submitted photo