OROn February 1 of this year, the snow fell hard in my hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, and I had been shoveling for an hour and a half before going to bed at midnight. I was exhausted, but I have a habit of watching movies on my phone while I go to sleep. I put on one of my favorites: the ’80s version of The Thing, starring Kurt Russell. It is the story of researchers in Antarctica who are gradually taken over by a malevolent alien.
At 10 minutes into the opening credits, he could barely keep his eyes open. The next thing I knew, four hours had passed, my wife, Heather, was asleep next to me and the movie was over a long time ago. Dazed, I pulled the phone off my pillow and pulled the AirPod wireless earbuds from one ear; the other one had fallen and I couldn’t find it.
Still barely awake, I headed to the bathroom to take a sip of water, but couldn’t swallow well. My throat filled with water, but it wouldn’t go down, I had to lean over the sink and let the water run off. It was strange and alarming, but I was so tired that I went back to bed. In the morning, I checked again to see if the headset was missing, but it was nowhere to be seen. The “find my AirPod” feature on my phone, which makes the headphones ring, didn’t work because the batteries were dead.
Much more snow had fallen overnight, and I left before breakfast to resume cleaning, breaking after an hour or so for a drink of water. Again, I couldn’t swallow, but I wasn’t worried, I just thought my throat was unusually dry and the difficulty would pass. “By the way,” I said, as I walked back out, “I have lost one of my headphones. Has anyone seen it?
While cleaning the snow, Heather and my son, Owen, searched the room thoroughly, even lifting the mattress. “Hey,” Owen said, “maybe you swallowed it in your sleep?” We all laughed, but a couple of minutes later, after another drink of water came back up, we started to wonder if he might be on to something. I had also noticed a slight pressure in the center of my chest, just a slight discomfort, nothing that would normally have caused concern. But the evidence was starting to accumulate.
“You need to get it checked out,” Heather said.
At the walk-in center, the receptionist asked about my symptoms. My answer was met with a puzzled look and the examining doctor was incredulous. She said that people with an object lodged in their throat generally experience a lot of pain, plus it seemed unlikely that I had inadvertently swallowed a one-and-a-half-inch-long piece of plastic. I was left alone when she went to examine the results of a precautionary X-ray.
The doctor’s expression when he returned was priceless. “Well, condemn me,” he said. She took me to her work station, which was surrounded by medical personnel. On the screen was a clear cartoon image of my ribs and, parked between them at 45 degrees, the unmistakable shape of the lost AirPod.
The situation may have seemed comical, but the doctor was clearly concerned. The AirPod seemed to be wedged firmly into the side of my esophagus, but there was still a chance that it could block an airway. If ingested, it could pass harmlessly through my system or lodge in my intestines, which would mean surgery. There was also a small chance that the device would break and I didn’t want to try to digest a lithium ion battery.
Heather took me to the endoscopy center, where the AirPod was taken out of my mouth with a tube with a loop. It was extremely uncomfortable, but he was sedated and therefore only half awake. A few minutes later, I got the AirPod in a neat little bag.
I tried it as soon as I got home. It works fine, although the mic is less reliable than it was. I will never know for sure how I managed to swallow it; My theory is that it fell onto the pillow, ended up next to my mouth, and was sucked in when I yawned. In hindsight, I’m glad the “find my AirPod” attempt didn’t work; I would have been scared if my throat had beeped.
As told to Chris Broughton
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism