When Deborah Zvosec fished around in her mouth during dinner and pulled out a small grill brush bristle one recent evening, there was a terrifying moment around the table as her two guests looked down and found their own metal fibers sticking to the chicken and potatoes.
But what happened next was far worse.
And it has Zvosec and her husband, an emergency room doctor at Hennepin County Medical Center, speaking publicly in the hopes of preventing similar incidents now that summer grilling is underway.
“I feel concern more than anything else,” Zvosec said on Thursday. “People need to know about this.”
Zvosec went to Hennepin County Medical Center the day after the May 27 dinner because she felt discomfort. Imaging scans found a 1.7 centimeter wire segment embedded deep in her tongue near the back of her throat.
The south Minneapolis woman spent five hours under general anesthesia.
Doctors tried at first to go into her throat and pull it out, but no piece of the fiber was sticking out.
Then they tried operating in a special room where they could observe the fiber with a CT scan. They still couldn’t get to it.
The hazard of a wire grill brush was news to Zvosec and her husband, Dr. Stephen Smith.
But one of the first alerts came in 2012, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a cluster of six patients who received treatment at a Rhode Island hospital system.
Injuries ranged from a “puncture of the soft tissues of the neck, causing severe pain on swallowing, to perforation of the gastrointestinal tract requiring [emergency] surgery,” according to the CDC.
The report triggered talk of federal legislation and safety guidelines or recalls by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, but nothing materialized.
Zvosec said her older, plastic-handled brush had been left outside before she used it to scrape the grill and grill pans, and that the fibers probably loosened over time. She didn’t see any, though, when she dabbed her fork at a morsel of sauce in her grill pan and tasted it.
She quickly felt as if something had lodged in her throat, but she didn’t connect the dots until she pulled a smaller fiber out at dinner.
At HCMC the next day, Smith looked at the CT scan and doubted his colleagues would be able to extract the fiber from his wife’s tongue.
“I’ve been in this business for 30 years,” Smith said. “If someone steps on a needle and there’s a needle in (his or her) foot, it’s incredibly hard” to extract it without damaging surrounding tissue.
His prediction proved correct, and Zvosec spent the night at the hospital — terrified that her tongue would swell up and cut off her breathing. She returned home on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.
Three days later, the wire did cause swelling, and doctors using a fiber-optic scope discovered that it had pierced the surface of her tongue and was sticking out. They numbed her mouth and used a long forceps to pull the wire from her tongue. A scan confirmed they got it all.
Zvosec says she feels fortunate, having read about a case in which a fiber pierced a patient’s stomach lining, and knowing that none of her dinner guests suffered similar injuries.
She e-mailed friends to warn them and tossed out the brush and other grill supplies.
The grill may have to go as well, just for good measure, she said. “I haven’t gone anywhere near it since then.”