Doctors suspect Paul Baxter has lung cancer. That is, after all, what all the signs point to. But as the medical professionals performed a probe, they find something they’ve never seen before. Grabbing hold of it, they retrieve it from the patient’s throat. And when they realise what it is, no one could quite believe what they’re looking at.
Paul Baxter is from Preston, a town north of Liverpool in the U.K., just over four hours northwest of London. He’d experienced problems with his health for more than 12 months. After developing a persistent and productive cough, he became concerned enough to seek advice from his doctor.
At first, Baxter should expect his job to keep him relatively healthy. You see, in 2017, he worked for the Royal Mail, the U.K. equivalent of the United States Postal Service. Delivering the country’s mail should have kept the then-50-year-old pretty fit. However, there was one aspect of his health doctors couldn’t overlook.
Indeed, Baxter had been a long-time smoker — and even light smokers have cause for concern. Research has shown that even the occasional cigarette can have a detrimental effect on health. It can even increase mortality rates in men by more than 50 percent. However, smoking wasn’t Baxter’s only issue.
You see, Baxter also suffered from a bout of pneumonia on top of his persistent cough. And so, with no signs of improvement, even after more than a year, his health became a worry. With the symptoms causing great concern, doctors referred the 50-year-old to a specialist for a diagnosis.
Baxter’s case was passed on to the Wythenshawe Hospital in South Manchester. Highly regarded in the medical field, Wythenshawe is a prestigious doctor’s training and research facility. Some of their specialisms include respiratory conditions, cancer care services, heart and lung transplants, as well as other advanced cardio procedures. So if anyone could offer Baxter a reliable diagnosis, surely they could.
Specialists took an x-ray of Baxter’s lungs to get a better idea of his condition. And when the image came back to them they saw something was wrong. Doctors spotted a suspicious looking silhouette cast across the postman’s lung. And given everything that they knew about him, they came to a devastating conclusion.
You see, a persistent cough can be an indication of lung cancer. And while it’s more typical for that cough to bring up blood, the mucus that Baxter was producing was perhaps concerning. Pneumonia, too, can sometimes be a symptom of the disease. And so, to further investigate the shadow on the x-ray, doctors performed more tests.
In a subsequent procedure, the doctor inserted an endoscope into Baxter’s throat. This was an exploratory measure to learn the extent of the 50-year-old’s supposed tumor, and to ascertain if it had advanced to the lymph nodes. These nodes are found in the middle of the chest, near the wind pipe. So it did not take too long before the doctor’s probe uncovered something on screen.
However, what the medic saw during the endoscopy was not what they expected. You see, where the doctor envisaged a tumor, he saw something unusual. And while the camera picked up the object’s color, he couldn’t make out what he was looking at. What’s more, retrieving it would mean a further visit to the hospital.
At Baxter’s next appointment, things became clearer. The doctor performed another endoscopy, and this time he had adequate equipment to reach the object lodged in the postman’s throat. The medic couldn’t make it out, other than to say it was orange. But when he carefully removed the foreign body and saw what it was, the patient made medical history.
Baxter’s doctor spotted something in his patient’s throat that he had never seen before. He had expected a growth, for instance a tumor, to be the cause of the postman’s health issues. However, while it’s more typical for a swelling to create issues like breathing difficulties, pains or coughs, it’s not unheard of for foreign objects to be the root of the problem.
For example, John Manley was 50 years old and lived in North Carolina. Like Baxter, he too suffered from a continual cough. What’s more, Manley underwent an endoscopy to see what the issue was, just as Baxter had done. The procedure was carried out by Dr. Momen Wahidi, who typically treats patients diagnosed with cancer.
Dr. Wahidi is the director of interventional pulmonology at Durham, North Carolina’s Duke University Medical Center and has over 20 years experience in his field. During an exploratory procedure, he found an unusual object lodged in Manley’s left lung. What’s more, he could clearly make out letters printed on the foreign body.
Dr. Wahidi extracted the object from Manley’s lung. “We’re looking at it and realizing that there are letters on it,” the doctor recalled to Fox News in September 2009. “We started reading out loud, ‘A-M-B-U-R-G-E-R,’ and realized it spelled, ‘hamburgers.’ Everybody was shocked. We had no clue why something that said ‘hamburgers’ would be in someone’s lung.”
However, on closer inspection, they realized they looking at part of the “Old Fashioned Hamburgers” slogan for the Wendy’s fast food chain. Dr. Wahidi had removed a one-inch segment of a plastic fork that Manley had inhaled around two years earlier. What’s more is that he believed it was responsible for the 50-year-old’s persistent cough, pneumonia-like symptoms and fatigue.
“I like to take big gulps of drink,” Manley explained. “I don’t know of any other ways of it getting in there.” Dr. Wahidi said such incidents occur more frequently with children. However, he has been known to extract objects such as false teeth and nails from adults who inadvertently inhaled them. Moreover, their body’s reaction was the only clue to the mishap.
However, the plastic fork fragment isn’t the most unusual item to ever be extracted from a patient’s lungs. For instance, in June 2012, Australia’s Daily Telegraph newspaper reported on a boy from India who unexpectedly fell ill. Anil Barela, from Khargone in the Madhya Pradesh region of India experienced breathing difficulties after playing in a river one day.
Barela, who was aged 12 at the time, had been playing with friends at the river. He was taken to hospital when his breathing became labored, and doctors found that his oxygen levels had dropped severely. Medics performed an operation to relieve the boy’s breathing and, after they explored further, found a live fish in his lung.
Now, it’s not too unusual for kids to sometimes swallow a small live fish for a dare. However, Barela inhaled one measuring three-and-a-half inches. Chest specialist Dr. Pramod Jhawar had never seen anything like it in 20 years of practice. He said, “The fish was live and taking its last breath when the bronchoscopy was done, restricting the functioning of both the lungs, resulting in low intake of oxygen.”
However, while that fish was in its last throes, other organisms have found life in human tissue. Consider the story of Artyom Sidorkin, a 28-year-old Russian who sought medical help in 2009 when he suffered from extreme chest pains and began producing blood when he coughed. Similar to Baxter’s story, doctors initially believed their patient had lung cancer.
Doctor Vladimir Kamashev prepared to operate on Sidorkin, expecting to remove the part of his lung he thought was cancerous. However, when he was able to take a closer look, he saw something entirely unexpected. Instead of a tumor, the 28-year-old’s lung had a growth of a different kind: a two-inch-tall fir sapling.
“I thought I was hallucinating,” Sky News reported Dr. Kamashev as saying. “I asked my assistant to have a look: ‘Come and see this – we’ve got a fir tree here.’” Presumably, then, Sidorkin inhaled a seed which subsequently began to germinate in his lung. Nevertheless, the incident left both doctors and horticulturists baffled.
“A seed might be able to germinate in the damp, dark conditions of a lung, but it’s still bizarre,” explained a spokesperson for Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London. Indeed, such incidents are rare. You see, when mucus is produced with a cough, it’s the lung’s way of ejecting anything that shouldn’t be there, just as Baxter experienced.
As you may recall, Baxter’s persistent cough was a productive one. It suggested, then, that something was present that should not be there. However, given the postman’s long-time smoking habit and the shadow that appeared on the x-ray of his lungs, his doctor’s best guess was that it was a tumor. But further exploration revealed something else.
“The doctor went in with the camera to start with,” Baxter recalled to early morning TV show BBC Breakfast in September 2017. “And he says, ‘I can see something.’ And he has little pincers on the end of his camera.” However, the doctor’s tools weren’t sufficient for the task at hand.
Baxter continued, “[The doctor said], ‘I can’t reach it with these, but there’s something definitely there. [He said], ‘It’s orange. I can’t grab it. You’re going to have to come back and we’ll do it again and I’ll use a longer [instrument].’” So the postman rescheduled to have the procedure carried out at a later date.
“So I went back to the hospital,” Baxter explained. “They put a longer probe down [my throat] and [the doctor] managed to pull [the object] up. And it came up, and it came up … and we were watching it on the screen and nobody could tell what it was.” Indeed, all they could ascertain up to that point was that it was orange.
However, when the object finally emerged, no one could quite believe what they were looking at. As Baxter recalled, “Everybody just fell about laughing.” Indeed, it was unlike anything doctors had seen before. So much so that the postman became the subject of a report in the British Medical Journal [BMJ] as the first case of its kind.
What doctors removed from Baxter’s lung was a miniature traffic cone. It was once part of a play set that the postman enjoyed as a child. The toy was part of the Playmobil brand that originated in Germany and became popular in the 1970s. Baxter recalled playing with the toys as a child.
Playmobil toys are marketed at children aged from four to 12 years old. The popular play sets center around themes, with early concepts including knights, Native Americans and construction workers. Presumably, then, Baxter had played with a construction-themed set as a child, when he somehow ingested one of the miniature pieces.
Indeed, Baxter vividly recalled having the toys when he was growing up, although he didn’t remember ever ingesting a piece. As he described, “I only remember playing with them. I don’t remember eating them. But obviously I’ve had it in my mouth, and like the doctor said, I’ve inhaled it.”
Baxter then explained how they knew the traffic cone had been inhaled and not swallowed. As he described, “Because normally if you swallow it goes down the other pipe and passes through you.” Indeed, toys with such small parts today must follow guidelines set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and be labelled with choking hazard warnings.
However, choking hazard warnings are intended to protect children under the age of three. You see, infants tend to explore their surroundings with their mouths. It would be easy, then, for them to inhale or swallow small components in toys or games. Any such products containing tiny pieces are banned from sale for kids under three years old.
Indeed, choking is among the main causes of accidental death for children under five. And while food is the top non-fatal choking hazard, many household items, including toys, can pose a risk. Furthermore, among under-fives in the U.S., choking is deadly for around one every five days. At least 12,000 more receive hospital treatment for food-related choking incidents.
However, while accidentally inhaling small objects is more common with very small children, Baxter’s case is unique for other reasons. You see, Playmobil was a favorite toy of his. He recalled receiving a set on his seventh birthday, and he even remembered swallowing pieces throughout his youth. He supposed, then, that he must have accidentally inhaled a miniature cone.
Furthermore, the uniqueness of Baxter’s case is that he showed no symptoms or discomfort from inhaling the piece until much later in life. As his doctors wrote in the BMJ report, “He recalled being given this Playmobil set for his seventh birthday and believes he aspirated the toy traffic cone soon after.”
The BMJ report continued, “While it is a common occurrence for children to accidentally inhale small objects, a case in which the onset of symptoms occurs so long after initial aspiration is unheard of.” Indeed, it had been more than 40 years before the mishap troubled Baxter. But doctors believe the piece was sucked into the lung’s lining, which then grew around it as he got bigger.
In the months after the cone’s retrieval, Baxter’s troublesome cough almost completely disappeared. In fact, the postman appeared in good spirits over the ordeal and was the subject of pranks from his colleagues. For instance, during a TV interview, a fellow postman walked by in the background wearing a huge traffic cone as a hat.
Baxter kept the miniature construction cone as a souvenir. In fact, it’s his intention for his grandkids to eventually inherit the tiny toy piece. Presumably the memento will come with a health warning from their grandfather’s lived experience. Indeed, he says he will keep a watchful eye over them should they ever wish to play with it.