Just before Thanksgiving, 14-year-old Christin Rivas got six rare-earth magnets from a friend at church, thinking she could "freak out" her classmates by using them for tricks.
The deceiving pea-size magnets are made for car wheel bearings and computer hard drives but are often sold for jewelry and art projects or touted as an arthritis cure.
They are so powerful that Christin could magically pull a pen up the wall while standing in a neighboring classroom at school.
But the joke went sour when the seventh grader inadvertently swallowed the dangerous magnets and was rushed to surgery before they perforated her stomach.
"I do feel it was one of those stupid kid moments," said Christin, who lives in Melbourne, Fla. "I was going to the bathroom and I put them in my mouth because I didn't want to put them on the floor. I wasn't quite thinking. The kid on the other side said something that made me laugh and swallow them."
- High-powered magnets are used for jewelry and art projects.
- Rare-earth magnets pose serious health threats to young children.
- If swallowed, they can cause intestinal perforation.
- Magnet-related emergency-room visits have been on the rise.
"I started to try to make myself throw up because I read they were really dangerous and got really worried," she said. "I told my teacher, and she sent me to the clinic and they called my mom."
Christin was lucky. Surgeons at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando were able to retrieve the magnets by cutting open her small intestine, and today she is back at school.
Now as Christmas approaches, Christin hopes that other children will be spared surgery and possibly death. It was her idea to call the Orlando Sentinel, which was the first newspaper to report her story.
Magnet-related emergency-room visits among Americans younger than 21 increased five times from 2002 to 2011, according to a recent study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.
Rare-earth magnets pose "unique health hazards to children," causing perforation of the volulus or bowel, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 2003, one death and 19 injuries, often requiring gastrointestinal surgery, have been reported.
The ones Christin swallowed were made of neodymium, a soft silvery element that, when it hits the stomach acid, begins to chip and erode.
After she was called by the school, Christin's mother, Barbara Rivas, did a quick computer search, realized how dangerous the magnets were and rushed Christin to the local hospital but was told to go home and wait until they passed.
"I didn't like what I saw on Google," said Rivas, a 52-year-old mother of five. "They said you have to get them out before three hours or they get really dangerous."
What the emergency room told her "just didn't seem right," said Rivas, so she called the CDC, which told her to get a "get a second opinion."
Six hours after ingesting the magnets, Christin was in a second emergency room. And when Rivas handed the doctor her research, he called for an ambulance and sent Christin to Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children.
"She came in overnight feeling fine, and in the morning when we repeated her X-ray we saw what looked like two round magnets and they had passed into the stomach," said Dr. Tejas Mehta, her gastroenterologist. "We thought we could do an upper endoscopy and be done with it."
But when the magnets passed into her small intestine and doctors were unable to flush them out with laxatives, Christin's condition became life-threatening.
"On the third day, the magnet stopped moving and was in the end of the small intestine near the colon," said Mehta. "A CT scan showed it was stuck."
Swallowing one magnet is not as worrisome as two, according to Mehta. "If they separate, they are really strong and they have an attractive force."
Swallowed objects like coins and hair pins rarely necessitate a procedure.
But magnets can cause parts of the digestive tract to stick together, eroding the tissue and causing perforation and infection.
"There have definitely been cases where a loop of the intestine or stomach is caught between the two magnets," he said. "If you are unlucky, it can twist the intestine and choke off the blood supply. It's pretty crazy."
Magnets are particularly dangerous for small children, because they cannot tell a parent if or what they have swallowed and treatment can get delayed.
"They can be asymptomatic for days, and then it gets stuck and they go from asymptomatic to sick in a matter of no time," he said.
After five days in the hospital, Christin is now home and "doing well," according to her mother, who said she'd like to see these magnets banned.
Many brands of the rare-earth balls are currently available on the Internet.
Today, the two magnets retrieved from Christin's intestine, corroded and no longer shiny, sit in a bowl, a reminder of the danger.
"They are an attractive nuisance, like a swimming pool with no fence around it or leaving the keys in the car when kids are around," said Rivas. "You can't cite a kid for being a kid. That's what they do. Parents should be aware of the potential dangers."
Her daughter, an honor roll student who is active in church and sports, agrees.
"They are very dangerous unless they are used for the right things," said Christin. "I wanted to make people more aware of this before Christmas when younger children can get ahold of the stuff. There is a 60 percent morbidity. A little kid wouldn't survive."