Pretoria - The past six months have been worse than a roller-coaster ride for the Garland family from Centurion, who have watched baby Caylee suffer the traumatic and extremely painful effects of swallowing a button battery.
The family celebrated her second birthday on Sunday, an occasion that meant more to them than other families when a baby officially becoming a toddler.
“She is our miracle button baby, and it’s only through the grace of God that we have her here with us,” her father Ronnie Garland said.
And her daughter’s recovery was on track, her mother Sonja said.
A team of therapists were working with the family on restoring Caylee’s milestones, which were disturbed when she swallowed a battery at 16 months last October.
Caylee had been playing with her toys on the floor in the lounge with her older siblings while their mother was preparing supper.
“She suddenly vomited, and after I gave her a bath she started throwing up again,” she said.
Sonja quickly rushed her daughter to the doctor who, after establishing that nothing strange had been fed to the child, put it down to gastro and sent them home.
“That night Caylee continued to bring her food up and cried throughout, and when we went back to the doctor the following morning doctors admitted her, and started treating her for a suspected stomach bug.”
Caylee had also broken out in a red rash and was having trouble breathing.
She was running a high fever and cried all night.
“An X-ray taken the following morning showed that there was something stuck in her throat, and we all thought it was a coin,” said Sonja.
A 10-minute procedure in theatre dislodged what they discovered to be a button battery, and the start of a the six-month nightmare the Garland family has endured.
“They explained that a battery starts burning into the flesh two hours after ingestion, and because Caylee had swallowed it two days before there was already a lot of damage,” Ronnie said.
There was a hole in her trachea, doctors said.
But the family were left dumbfounded when doctors told them the damage would continue, because electricity had been transmitted while inside her throat.
“When they closed one hole another one appeared, and when one area was repaired something else appeared,” Sonja said.
She watched her baby go through one surgical procedure after another; sat with her while the little girl lay almost lifeless and sedated to prevent her from pulling out the many tubes running across her face and chest.
Caylee had operations to close up holes in her trachea and oesophagus; surgery on her brain which had swollen after her heart stopped beating during another procedure and procedures on her heart and lungs.
There were others, including an incision on the side of her neck to drain saliva.
“There were many times when she had to be rushed into theatre because she suddenly stopped breathing.
“Many times she had to be resuscitated,” Sonja said.
She said that those were on top of tracheotomies, gastroscopies, incisions and the insertion of tubes through her nose, mouth and abdomen.
Two months ago the family brought their baby back home, but their happiness has been marred by the occasional rush back to Unitas Hospital, when Caylee suddenly stops breathing.
But they are walking the road to recovery together, the parents said this week.
After four months spent lying on a hospital bed her muscles were weak, but work on re-teaching her to use her muscles are on track. One side effect she came out of hospital with was damage to the left side of her brain, leaving the little girl unable to use it effectively.
An occupational therapist is helping her to co-ordinate and restore her fine motor skills; a speech therapist is teaching her to use her vocal cords, throat and mouth and to process food.
“She needs to learn to recognise taste and flavours, and to swallow,” her mother said.
A neuro-therapist is working with Caylee to reverse the effects of the brain damage on her central nervous system.
Last week the Garlands said they wanted all parents to be aware of the dangers of children ingesting batteries.
“No parent must go through what we have,” Sonja said.
While she would never have known that a loose battery was lying within Caylee’s reach, she said vigilance was required where there were remote controls and battery-run toys.
“Rather be paranoid, so if your child gets sick for no conceivable reason take them to the doctor,” she said.
When she swallowed the battery, Caylee was crawling around fast and extremely mobile.
Before the accident, she was a chatterbox who continuously babbled, calling out to her siblings, parents and the dogs and making the right noises to express herself.
“She is now re-learning it all, she has sat up for four minutes without support and that was a moment to behold,” said Sonja.
During a visit to the family home last week, Caylee gurgled and laughed as she sat in her father’s arms.
She rolled around on his lap and on the seat next to him when he put her down, the melodious baby sounds belying the fact that she has been through immense trauma, and survived an incident which could have been fatal.
The ingestion of disc batteries is a major health hazard
Button or disc batteries power a multitude of products, such as remote control devices, calculators, watches, hearing aids, hand-held games, clocks, and key chains.
When swallowed, these cells have a strong potential for corrosive injury to the gastrointestinal tract and have major complications, including oes-ophageal burns, fistula, or perforation. The ingestion of disc batteries remains a major health hazard in South Africa and the world.
A large number of people coming through trauma units suffering from the effects of them are children younger than five.
The symptoms, as described by the Red Cross Children’s Hospital, include increased salivation, vomiting, chocking and/or refusal to eat, and fever.
The symptoms can also indicate other conditions and therefore late diagnosis and delayed treatment are common. What makes these lithium batteries so dangerous is that they are appealing to a child’s eye, as they can be mistaken for sweets and can easily fit into small mouths, ears or noses. On very rare occasions the swallowed battery can pass through the body without incident.
According to ear, throat and nose specialists, if a lithium battery stays lodged in the oesophagus for more than two hours it starts eroding through the soft tissue of the oesophagus and causes a hole, which can be fatal. Kids who survive face serious health issues and may experience permanent paralysis of the vocal cords, which can rob them of their speech.
Experts explain that when ingested, the batteries often become lodged in the oesophagus, near the voice box. Once lodged, the battery can start burning as a result of a chain-reaction with saliva within the hour. The chemical reaction burns a hole through the oesophagus, the aorta, the spine and “whatever else is in there”, they say.
The battery then causes internal bleeding in the stomach which will require major medical assistance to repair, including multiple surgeries.
Few children survive the effects of the ingested battery, and those who do can have anything up to and beyond 100 stints in theatre before they are able to to resume a normal life.