SEATTLE — At first, Tristin Beck thought it was a really bad stomach cramp.
Then, when the aching turned to repeated vomiting late last week, the Mountlake Terrace, Wash., 16-year-old thought it was a virus.
As the symptoms worsened, doctors at Seattle Children’s Hospital ran “about a million tests,” Beck’s mom said, searching for an explanation.
Finally, in a Sunday-night exploratory surgery, they found it: a tiny piece of grill brush wire, about the size of a short strand of hair, stuck inside Beck’s small intestine.
Beck apparently accidentally ate the strand of wire during a barbecue nearly two weeks ago.
“Somehow one of the tiny little hairlike wires got stuck in one of the grills in the barbecue and in a one-in-a-million chance it got stuck in a piece of chicken that I ate and made it most of the way through my body but then got stuck in my intestines and basically started stabbing me from the inside out,” Beck said from his hospital bed.
Beck, who is expected to make a full recovery, is the latest case of a little-known safety hazard that experts say is more common than most people think.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission say they don’t have any data on so-called “bristle-brush incidents,” when a piece of wire from a grill brush makes it into food and then a body, puncturing the throat, intestines or elsewhere in the digestive tract.
Dr. David Grand, a radiologist at Rhode Island Hospital, said such incidents are life-threatening and taking place across the country.
Grand is the author of a paper published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Report last summer about a half-dozen cases in Rhode Island over a two-year period. He said the incidents are mistakenly thought to be rarer than they really are because many times the doctor removes a piece of wire without realizing it came from a grill brush.
At least one confirmed case occurred in Washington last July, when Tacoma’s Adam Wojtanowicz underwent emergency surgery because of a brush bristle.
Beck’s ordeal began after a barbecue on Saturday, April 27, when he had some chicken.
On May 1, the following Wednesday, the Inglemoor High sophomore started feeling abdominal pain in the middle of the school day.
When he got home, Beck started vomiting repeatedly. Sometimes the vomit was tinged with blood.
Beck’s parents took him to the hospital on Friday.
The doctors couldn’t figure out the problem and initially wanted to send Beck home, he said.
Then they started tests, speculating it could be anything from a birth defect to a brain tumor. They eventually located a “bowel obstruction” and decided to perform the surgery.
Surgeons found the piece of wire in an hour-long surgery Sunday night.
“We were very scared, we were very freaked out,” said Beck’s mother, Beth. “He could have died.”
Beth Beck, a bank officer, said she hopes her family’s story persuades people to throw out their wire grill brushes.
Tristin Beck said he will find a new way to clean the grill and will barbecue again.
“But not for a while,” he said.