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Ava Kendall, 2, was eating lunch at home in College Point, Texas, with her grandfather and family when she suddenly started grabbing her stomach and crying in pain. It wasn’t until two days later— Christmas Eve— that her parents found out she had swallowed nine small magnets that were part of a desk toy containing over 100 of the silver balls.
“She’s smart— she never tried to put things in her mouth or eat anything. We’d tell her ‘yucky’ and she doesn’t go for it,” her mother, Lexi Kendall, told FoxNews.com. “We had no idea she could even get to [the magnets].”
Lexi and her husband Ian Kendall, both 23, kept the magnets on the upper part of their refrigerator or a bookshelf, but would occasionally take them down and play with them with Ava, always returning them to an out-of-reach place when they were done.
Lexi thinks Ava may have grabbed the magnets while she was attending to their 5-month-old son.
“Somehow she got up to them and decided they looked tasty,” she said.
After she started showing symptoms, Ava wouldn’t let her family touch her and nothing they tried helped. Thirty minutes later, she threw up and the family thought she just had a stomachache that would settle down, but she went through cycles of pain and vomiting the rest of the day.
Lexi and Ian took Ava to emergency care the next day, where she was tested for flu, strep and pneumonia, but the doctor concluded she had a viral stomach bug.
“We got home and she still wasn’t acting normal,” Lexi said. “I wasn’t really happy with that answer. It didn’t all add up.”
They took Ava to the emergency room, where doctors saw her elevated heart rate and pain level and took a CT scan, thinking it was her appendix. That’s when they saw the nine small magnets.
The next morning they took Ava to Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, where she underwent a four-hour procedure to remove the magnets, repair the tears and control her infection.
Ava is currently still at the hospital recovering with IV antibiotics, after spending a week under sedation in the intensive care unit.
According to Dr. Kay Leaming-Van Zandt, an emergency medicine physician at Texas Children's Hospital, these incidents likely occur more commonly than most parents realize.
“That’s why [parents] may not be taking the preventative measures within the home itself, with regard to these pretty dangerous toys,” she told FoxNews.com.
While toys with magnets typically require warning labels, adult products, such as higher-powered magnets found in stress relievers, do not, Leaming-Van Zandt, who did not treat Ava, added.
Children who swallow magnets often present with generalized symptoms such as abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea and fever, that mimic other diagnoses such as viral infection and appendicitis. Plus, since children sometimes have a delayed presentation— and can’t always verbalize what they’ve done— they tend to come to the hospital sicker than adults.
“If the suspicion isn’t there, it’s easy for parents to not look for [magnets],” Leaming-Van Zandt said.
When swallowed, the magnets can cause damage throughout the entire gastrointestinal tract, as they naturally attempt to adhere together. In the effort to attach, the beads erode through the body, potentially sticking to the esophageal lining, intestinal walls, stomach lining, and eventually creating small holes. Another potential outcome is necrosis, the death of the bowel lining.
“The longer the magnets are within the body, the more damage we typically see and so not only is surgery to remove the magnets, but if there’s a perforation, sometimes we even need to remove parts of the intestines, depending on how severe the injury is,” Leaming-Van Zandt said.
As the beads travel through the body, they can cause severe infection and dramatic changes in blood pressure and heart rate.
Leaming-Van Zandt emphasized the importance of parents going through their home to remove these seemingly innocuous household items and researching what types of products are at higher risk for their child’s age or development.
Parents should also talk with their teenagers, warning them of the dangers of swallowing magnets. Leaming Van-Zandt cited an adolescent patient she recently saw who swallowed a few magnets after using them to stimulate a tongue piercing.
“Talking to them, having this conversation is really important so you don’t have to get to the point of going the emergency center and requiring lifesaving surgery,” she said. “It’s very preventable and usually takes child-proofing and a conversation with older kids.”
Lexi said Ava is now able to communicate and shows glimmers of her old self, especially when she got to play with bubbles.
“You wouldn’t think it’d be so damaging,” Lexi said. “Had I known, I would’ve gotten rid of them. I think it’s important to spread the word so there isn’t another child, another family, that has to go through something like this.”