HACKENSACK, N.J. — Just in time for barbecue season, here's a cautionary tale from River Edge, N.J.
Michael DeStefan thought he had appendicitis when he went to the emergency room on a Monday afternoon earlier this month. A pain in his belly had grown so agonizing over the weekend that he could barely stand up.
But emergency-room doctors didn't see an inflamed appendix when they looked at a CT-scan image of his abdomen.
Instead, lying outside the large intestine was a thin, 1½ -inch-long metallic object, said Dr. Sanjeev Kaul, associate director of trauma surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center.
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DeStefan, 54, told the surgeon he hadn't swallowed a nail or a fish hook or a paper clip — all items that Kaul asked him about. He didn't know what it was, and neither did the doctor.
Whatever it was, it had to come out. So Kaul performed emergency surgery, removing the "foreign body" and repairing the hole it made in DeStefan's large intestine.
"It was quite stiff," Kaul said of the shiny gold wire. "Very bizarre. I haven't seen anything like that."
The wire, it turned out, was a bristle from the brush DeStefan used to clean the barbecue grill.
DeStefan's wife, Frances, solved the mystery. When she stepped onto their patio the morning after her husband's surgery, her eyes lit upon the grill brush. All night, she'd asked herself what Michael had eaten, where, and whether she'd somehow cooked the offending piece of metal into his food.
She looked at the brush's aluminum bristles, she said, and realized, "This is it! I didn't do it!"
Home from the hospital and feeling better, DeStefan explained how the bristle ended up inside him.
The previous Wednesday, he had thrown some meat on the grill.
"I was cooking shell steaks, as a matter of fact — with barbecue sauce," he said.
He doesn't clean the grill before he cooks, he said. He cleans it afterward. "When the grill's all hot, and I take the meat off it, I take the brush and scrub it," he said.
A bristle apparently had stuck to the grate and then became embedded in the steak the next time he used the grill.
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"I don't know how I ate something like that without feeling it in my mouth," he said. "Not getting stuck in my throat, not putting a hole in my stomach — how it got through my system. It's crazy. It's absolutely nuts."
DeStefan is not the first person to have such an experience.
Earlier this year, four Rhode Island radiologists published a report in the journal of the American Roentgen Ray Society about six emergency patients they'd seen with the same problem over an 18-month period. In three, the wire caught in the throat, and in three it got as far as the stomach and intestines. Each patient arrived at the emergency room within 24 hours of eating grilled food.
Doctors should consider this possibility "whenever patients present with acute pain after ingestion of grilled food," the radiologists wrote.
Kaul, the Hackensack surgeon, said he "didn't ask the patient, 'Have you recently been cleaning your grill?' But next time, I will."
DeStefan, Kaul said, is lucky to be alive. "You can die from this," he said. The wire perforated DeStefan's intestine, and the leakage already had started an infection. Left untreated, it could have been fatal.
DeStefan, who owns a South Hackensack printing business, knows he might be in for ribbing after telling his story. But "maybe I'll save just one person," he said. "I don't want anyone to go through what I went through."
He has grilled a meal since coming home from the hospital.
"I did have a steak," he said. "And I will tell you I cut it into really little pieces and inspected every mouthful before I put it in my mouth."
Then he scrubbed the grill with the new cleaning stone his wife bought to replace the brush.