Cough after stuck french fry rips man's esophagus, nearly kills him

A single french fry nearly cost Craig Harrison his life.


After taking home burgers and fries for lunch Sept. 3, Harrison distributed the food to his children, “and I just picked up one fry,” he said. He popped it into his mouth, chewed and swallowed it.

It got stuck, something that happens to him every so often, but this time much deeper in his esophagus than normal. His attempt to cough it up was so violent it tore open his esophagus and the contents flooded his chest cavity, compromising his ability to breathe.

“He should be dead,” said Dr. Philip Catalano, the thoracic surgeon who operated on Harrison.

The predicament was actually a fairly common problem called Boerhaave syndrome, in which there is a tear in the esophagus, often from violent retching, said Dr. Sunil Lal, the gastroenterologist who treated Harrison.

“It’s really difficult to tell who is more predisposed to it,” Lal said. “It can happen in very healthy individuals. It is associated with really violent retching or vomiting, and it carries a very high rate of mortality,” particularly if it is not treated right away.

Harrison said his choking problem began in high school – his grandfather also had it – but it was usually something he could reverse by gulping water or coughing. It was that one huge cough this time that probably did it.

“This particular time we knew something was different,” said his wife, Car­rie.

She immediately took him to the emergency room at Doctors Hospital, which probably saved his life.

An hour later, he was on Catalano’s table with his chest open, the surgeon said.

The middle compartment of Harrison’s chest “was packed full of blood and pus and french fry,” Catalano said. The esophagus tore about a foot, from near the aortic arch down to his stomach, he said.

“That’s a long tear,” Catalano said. “Everything we would read says he should not have survived.”

Because the tear could not be sewn, Lal placed a stent – like a long tube of wire mesh covered with a coating to prevent leaks – inside the esophagus.

“It acts as a scaffolding for the esophagus to heal,” Lal said. Harrison was kept sedated for weeks to keep him comfortable and allow the tear to heal itself before it was removed. He then began a couple of weeks of inpatient rehab to help him deal with atrophied muscles from being bed-bound.

His wife placed a picture of his three children – 4-year-old twins Reid and Louisa and 20-month-old Cole – in his room to remind staffers “of what I was counting on,” Harrison said. Around the hospital, he was known as “the french fry guy,” he said.

Harrison was smiling about it Wednesday as he prepared to leave Doctors and go home.

“He’ll have no functional impairment at all,” Catalano said.

“He’s really done well.”

Harrison vowed that he is not cutting anything out of his diet.

“I’ve had french fries,” he said. “It was a freak accident, and I can’t allow that to keep me from eating french fries or eating anything else.”

Not everyone is totally on board with that.

“It makes my wife nervous, and it makes other people nervous,” Harrison said. “They watch me very closely if I have a french fry in my mouth. But I just make sure I chew it up very well. I haven’t had any problems, and I don’t expect to.”