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An elusive foreign body

19 July 2018
Child H, a three-year-old boy, was brought into the Emergency Department (ED) of a private hospital by his mother, having inhaled or swallowed a little building brick. They brought a similar piece with them. Child H was seen by a doctor, Dr W, who documented that he appeared well, with no signs of respiratory distress and a normal auscultation. Dr W arranged for him to have a chest x-ray, which both Dr W and a radiologist considered normal.

Two months later, Child H became unwell with a cough and a high temperature. His mother brought him to the ED where, following a chest x-ray, he was diagnosed with right lower lobe pneumonia. Child H’s mother mentioned to Dr F – the doctor who saw them – that they had been to the ED not long ago after Child H “swallowed” a little toy. All this was documented.

During the next two years, Child H suffered recurrent episodes of pneumonia and attended the local ED five times. He saw a different doctor on every occasion and had five more chest x-rays. All of them were reported as “right lower lobe pneumonia with collapse and some pleural fluid”. There were no indications in the ED cards to suggest that previous cards or x-rays were looked at. 

In view of the recurrent chest infections, Child H’s GP referred him to the paediatric team for further investigations. Paediatric consultant Dr Q saw Child H in clinic, looked at all the x-rays and became suspicious of the presence of a foreign body. An urgent bronchoscopy was organised and a large piece of plastic removed. Child H required further surgery as the foreign body had caused fibrosis of the pulmonary parenchyma, which required excision. 

Child H’s mother made a claim against the private hospital and all the hospital doctors involved during those two years. 

Expert opinion
The experts commented that “a case of a possible inhaled foreign body has to be followed up closely and even without a clear history of inhalation of a foreign body, this should be considered a possibility in cases of recurrent pneumonia in children with persistent x-ray changes”. 

The case was deemed to be indefensible and was settled for a moderate amount. 

Learning points
  • Taking a good history can save a lot of mishaps in clinical practice; it is important to listen. Digging into the details of what happened to this child could have made it clear whether the foreign body was swallowed or inhaled. The sudden onset of respiratory difficulty, with coughing, stridor or wheezing, needs to be specifically investigated. If inhalation is suspected, careful follow-up is required to determine the need for a bronchoscopy.
  • Many types of plastic are radiolucent and will not show up on an x-ray.
    Asking the radiographers to place an example of a foreign body, if brought in by the parents, next to the patient they are going to x-ray will easily determine whether it is a radio-opaque object or a radiolucent one.
  • Previous attendances to the ED by children might be relevant in a significant number of cases. Hospital note-gathering systems may be helpful in picking up previous ED attendances. Reviewing old notes is therefore always important and might offer unexpected background to a new presentation. 
  • With modern computerised radiographic storing systems, there is little excuse not to look at previous x-rays. Both clinician and radiologist would have been alerted to the fact that the changes in the chest x-ray were chronic and would therefore be suspicious of a foreign body being present.