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Johannesburg - A fashion fad has ended in surgery for a Joburg girl after she accidentally swallowed eight magnets.
Hayley Mann,12, and her friends had been using the small round balls - or Buckyballs - as fake tongue rings.
One on the bottom, one on the top, and the powerful magnets looked just like the real thing.
“We put them on the Friday night (July 26),” said Hayley, from Mulbarton.
“We all went to the movies… I thought I’d taken them out, because I couldn’t feel them in my mouth, but when I was eating I must have swallowed them.”
She had no idea.
The next day, she was sitting on her bed when she leaned over to change the music on her CD player. A sharp pain hit her gut, like severe cramping.
Then, she started vomiting, unable to keep food down.
The pain continued for days - a constant, dull cramp, broken by sharp stabs.
Doctors said it was flu cramps. It was winter. It was going around.
Then it was the stabbing that became constant.
“I said, ‘Mom, I need to go to the hospital’,” Hayley said.
Three weeks had passed. Hayley could barely walk.
She was admitted into the Netcare Garden City and X-rayed: there, in her intestines, was a string of eight of the little magnetic balls.
But the doctors didn’t suspect them. “On the X-rays, it looks like the magnets formed a chain, which could work its way out of the system,” said Hayley’s mother, Sue.
“They thought the pain was probably appendicitis or an ovarian cyst, a kidney infection or something.”
Hayley was discharged.
But the X-rays were two-dimensional. What the doctors couldn’t see was that the powerful magnets - each ingested at different times - had made their way to different parts of Hayley’s intestines. They weren’t connected in a string. They had drawn her guts together in a tight bow, attracted to each other through the intestinal walls.
It’s not the first time Buckyballs have caused injury.
A Looklocal report from June last year described a similar incident when a 14-year-old Mpumalanga girl needed surgery after swallowing the magnets. Doctors had to remove a section of her small intestine: the pressure of the magnets had left five small holes.
In the US, 22 reported cases happened between 2009 and 2011, involving not only teenagers faking piercings, but toddlers as young as 18 months. Half of the cases needed surgery, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said.
A Canadian study released in March said that while in the past magnets were much weaker and could generally be left to pass through the system, “modern magnet technology has transformed what was once an esoteric subtype of foreign-body ingestion into a common and lethal threat”, Dr Daniel Rosenfield, one of the study’s authors, said.
New magnets are made of rare earth metals, and are between 10 and 20 times stronger than traditional ferrite magnets.
Rosenfield said that “multiple magnets, especially when swallowed at different times, can attract each other through loops of the gastrointestinal tract”.
Another study from the University of Washington, published just this month, found that cases of children swallowing magnets increased more than five times over a 10-year period in the US. Almost three quarters of the magnets were swallowed, but 21 percent were ingested nasally.
The product was discontinued last year, after the CPSC threatened to sue.
Not that the product came without ample warning.
On the plastic casing of a Buckyball cuboid, it says: “Do not put in nose or mouth. Swallowed magnets can stick to intestines, causing serious injury or death.”
Two days after being discharged, Hayley was back in hospital. She couldn’t stand. She couldn’t even straighten her body.
The doctors decided to operate.
For 90 minutes, they worked their way through the Hayley’s intestines, seeking out the magnets, their metallic instruments getting stuck along the way.
It’s been nine days since Hayley’s operation. She’s recovering well, but her mother is now trying to raise awareness about the dangers of the fad.