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

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A single french fry nearly cost Craig Harrison his life.

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Craig Harrison holds an X-ray that shows where a french fry caused a violent cough that ripped open his esophagus and nearly killed him.   Chris Thelen/Staff
Chris Thelen/Staff
Craig Harrison holds an X-ray that shows where a french fry caused a violent cough that ripped open his esophagus and nearly killed him.

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.”

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ponytailfnp
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ponytailfnp 12/07/11 - 05:23 pm
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how great was that... what a

how great was that... what a great job they did from admission to rehab for this young man to be able to return to his family with no impairments at all. Congrats to him and all that took care of him!!!!

Just My Opinion
6250
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Just My Opinion 12/07/11 - 06:29 pm
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Craig, you don't know me, but

Craig, you don't know me, but I'm going to tell you something that I hope you will ALWAYS remember. I met your wife and your mother in the ICU waiting room and talked with them several times. The strength and love that those 2 women had for you were inspired by God. Your wife had so much confidence and resolve in your rehab, that she was an inspiration to our family. You are a lucky man to have her in your life, Craig. Never take Carrie for granted because she is your earthly reward from God. We are very happy for your entire family.

TrulyWorried
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TrulyWorried 12/07/11 - 08:02 pm
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To Just My Opinion - what a

To Just My Opinion - what a wonderful thing for you to write, I hope and pray that your loved one was healed and able to go home. God bless you - we need more kind folks like you.
Merry Christmas!!

Craig Spinks
818
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Craig Spinks 12/08/11 - 03:05 am
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Wonderful posts!

Wonderful posts!

augusta citizen
10002
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augusta citizen 12/08/11 - 06:38 am
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Just My Opinion, ditto what

Just My Opinion, ditto what TrulyWorried said! It was so kind of you to post that and I hope your loved one is home and doing well!

Katie's MOM
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Katie's MOM 12/08/11 - 10:27 am
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A great story. I have always

A great story. I have always found Doctors to be a outstanding hospital. Care and compassion from top notch professionals. It too would be the first place I would drive my loved ones. Continue to live life to the fullest. Merry Christmas to your sweet family.

Cadence
219
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Cadence 12/08/11 - 11:15 am
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OMG that's awful. I may never

OMG that's awful. I may never eat again! Only liquid foods from now on. Until lunch anyway.

TELLITLIKEITIS1
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TELLITLIKEITIS1 12/08/11 - 01:07 pm
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He is truly blessed!

He is truly blessed!

tinytuna
74
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tinytuna 12/08/11 - 10:14 pm
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I don't know Craig, but I

I don't know Craig, but I feel close to him and his family. I go to Warren Baptist on Wednesday night. Craig's name has been on the prayer list for a long time. Many people have prayed for him. I was so glad to see his photo and see that he is doing fine. The Good Shepherd has watched out for this sheep.

joehill
0
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joehill 12/09/11 - 03:02 am
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Craig, congratulations for

Craig, congratulations for pulling through. Kids, let this be a lesson to you, CHEW YOUR FOOD!

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