The Bizarre, Long-lost Objects Found Inside Patients’ Bodies

The bald eagle broach was found in the bronchus of a 21-year-old in 1961. The metal bobby pin was found in the stomach of a 5-year-old in 1946.

A massive rusted bottle cap with sharp, jutting edges. A flashlight lens. A house key. A tiny wooden cross.

It's impossible to believe the objects a person could swallow, choke on, ingest or get stuck inside an orifice of the body.

Impossible, that is, until you walk inside the Indiana Medical History Museum where, tucked away in a room, stands a wooden cabinet. The cabinet appears unassuming, with 60 drawers stacked one on top of another. It looks like any other cabinet until the tiny black label at the top -- which reads "Foreign Objects -- makes it clear. 

This cabinet isn't ordinary. It is filled with the strange, the eerie and the bizarre.

More than 1,000 foreign objects are inside that cabinet, items removed from patients for more than 50 years. The earliest one is marked 1916 and the latest marked in the 1970s.

They are objects that workers of the ENT clinic at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health -- then known as the James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children  -- saved whenever a patient came in to have them removed.

The patients' ages range from 9-month-old baby girls to 70-year-old men. At that time, specialty departments, such as ENT clinics, served both adults and children. Some of the items name the patient; some don't. Some tell what year the item was removed and others tell how long the item was believed to be inside the body. Some of the info is typed on a typewriter, while other info is handwritten.

There, obviously, was no official system to recording the objects. And that may be because this wasn't exactly the usual thing to do.

In fact, it's quite likely there is not a collection like this anywhere else in the world, said Richard Schreiner, M.D., who for 22 years served as Physician-In-Chief and Chairperson for the Department of Pediatrics at Riley.

"The fact that they just saved all of these? I cannot imagine that there is another collection like this anywhere," Dr. Schreiner said, as he rummaged through the drawers last week. "This required people to save stuff over 50 years. And I just can't imagine that anyone else would have done this."

The history of the cabinet is sketchy. Dr. Schreiner researched to get what he could and found that it all began with a nurse.

A Riley nurse at the ENT clinic, for an unknown reason, decided to start saving the items being removed from patients. She placed each object in the shells of old egg cartons with their corresponding information. And she must have passed along the practice to incoming nurses because, by the 1970s, they were still being collected.

In fact, there were so many objects sitting in egg cartons by the 1970s that the department had a cabinet built to store them in.

***

There are sad things inside the cabinet, like the big knife blade found in the pleural cavity of a 5-year-old on Sept. 5, 1929.

"Oh, how did it get in...." Dr. Schreiner trails off. "Well, it's between the lungs and the chest wall. How in the heck did that get in there? The person was stabbed accidentally or purposefully I would think, rather than swallowing it."

There are nostalgic things inside the cabinet, like the souvineir coin from the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. It was swallowed in 1934 and removed.

There are novel things inside the cabinet, like a miniature red pool ball found in the larnyx of a 2-year-old male in 1972.

And there are downright painful things inside the cabinet, like the open 1-inch safety pin found in the esophagus of a patient in 1949.

"Open in the esophagus. Isn't that amazing?" Dr. Schreiner said. People, he is sure, will be skeptical.

"They will say, 'How could that happen?'" Dr. Schreiner said. "You could imagine yourself, you're sewing or you're changing a diaper and you've got that pin in your mouth. And something happens."

You get startled and open your mouth and gasp air in and you swallow it, he said.

"You easily could see that happen," Dr. Schreiner said.

Easily? Maybe with a safety pin. But some of the objects are downright unbelievable.

***

There is a huge black rubber nipple from a machine that was found inside the body of a 21-year-old.

There is a greenish-hazel baby doll eyeball complete with lashes that still opens and closes. When Dr. Schreiner first saw it, he thought it was a person's artificial eye.

Then, as he was doing his research on the cabinet, talking to people who worked at the ENT clinic back in the day, one of them remembered a boy who had swallowed an eye from his sister's baby doll.

 "And you haven't seen anything yet," Dr. Schreiner said.

That is what brings us to the dentures, an entire set of dentures found inside an elderly man on March 20, 1941. They were caught back in his throat, where the vocal cords are. The doctors, who often would like to take note of  unusual cases, took a picture of the patient. It's in the drawer, a black-and-white photo of a grouchy-looking man next to the dentures.

Hard to imagine, the patient wouldn't have wanted to take those dentures home with him.

Then again, it's hard to imagine most of what's inside the cabinet.

-- By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.
   Reach Benbow via email dbenbow@iuhealth.org or on Twitter @danabenbow.


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