One winter night, Dr. Melissa Barton was the attending physician in the emergency department of the Detroit Medical Center. Making her rounds, she picked up a chart for a new patient and read the woman's chief complaint: "eye in the vagina."
The patient told Barton she had been expecting a fight with some neighbors outside her house. Wearing only a sweatshirt and spandex pants, she needed somewhere to stow her prosthetic eye for safe-keeping.
"Those things are pretty expensive and hard to replace," Barton said. "So that's where it went, along with her driver's license."
Unfortunately, it got stuck.
Dr. Gary Vilke, a professor of clinical emergency medicine at the University of California San Diego Medical Center, saw a patient who had four Barbie doll heads stuck in his rectum.
"When you looked at his x-ray, they were looking at you, like a totem pole," Vilke said.
Ask a handful of emergency medicine specialists about cases like these, and you'll get a cascade of stories about patients with strange objects ingested or inserted in unlikely places. Vegetables, light bulbs, tools, even cell phones and reading glasses have wound up illuminated on x-rays or described on medical charts in U.S. emergency departments.
For many unlucky patients, an inserted or ingested foreign object is the result of a one-in-a-million accident or a single bout of bad judgment or curiosity. Emergency medicine doctors say they see these patients more often than you might think.
Foreign Bodies in the Body There is little data detailing just how many patients wind up in U.S. emergency departments with objects stuck in their orifices, but doctors say it happens pretty frequently.
"There's usually a good story every week or two, everything from the unique to the bizarre to the gross," said Vilke, who has practiced emergency medicine for 20 years.
Dr. Rich Dreben, Dr. Murdoc Knight and Dr. Marty Sindhian have heard enough of these stories to fill an entire book, called "Stuck Up! 100 Objects Inserted and Ingested in Places They Shouldn't Be." The three were classmates in medical school and became fascinated by the sheer number of patients they saw who came to the hospital with these problems.
"As a medical student, these cases actually helped me learn a lot about human anatomy, biology and the doctor-patient relationship," said Dreben, who is now a psychiatrist in California. "These patients really stuck with us. I guess that's a poor choice of words."
Patients with lodged foreign objects usually fall into three categories: those who swallow the objects, those who get things stuck accidentally (think cockroaches crawling into someone's ear while he sleeps), and those who intentionally insert items into their vaginas or rectums – and can't get them out.
When it comes to swallowed objects, children age 4 and younger account for 75 percent of the cases that doctors treat. On the flip side, patients with objects stuck in the rectum are more likely to be between ages 20 and 40, and far more likely to be male. Some studies have found that men are 28 times more likely to insert objects up their backsides than women are.
"I think the most common objects I've seen are vegetables," Knight said. "I've never been able to figure that one out."