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Popular kids toy expands in toddler’s intestine, requires emergency surgery at Children’s Hospital

By Sean MacKinnon

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    OMAHA, Nebraska (KETV) — Last week, Iowa mother Hannah Rief and her happy, healthy family of five, including 14-month-old Letty, went out for sushi.

“She loves avocado and rice, and that was just the perfect meal for her, and she was so happy, and it just changed so fast,” Rief said.

The next day, Letty couldn’t stop throwing up.

“She just kept vomiting over and over and over again. Like, I’m talking every 30 minutes. I knew something was wrong,” she said.

After being told it was a viral infection by her local ER, she was transferred to Children’s Hospital.

“I kept telling them that she swallowed something,” Rief said. “And they said, no, nothing is showing up on the scans, nothing is in there. It’s not a foreign object. And I was like, I just, I’m not convinced.”

Call it a mother’s intuition — confirmed by a surgeon’s difficult call.

“He’s like, no, there’s no point in taking another X-ray. There’s no point in waiting. She needs … we’re going to do exploratory and find out what it is,” Rief said.

That’s when doctors discovered a tiny toy, a water bead, expanding inside her small intestine, blocking it and beginning to tear it.

“It could have ruptured, it could have been septic and she could have died,” Rief said.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has received dozens of reports over the years of kids being hurt by “water beads.”

That’s because they contain a super-absorbent substance that can expand to hundreds of times their original size when exposed to water — like if swallowed.

Rief says she vacuumed up the beads in her home two years ago, but one must have escaped.

“She was playing and that’s where she must have found one in the carpet. And her little pincher just picked it up. And then it literally grew inside of her,” Rief said.

KETV Investigates placed the beads in water. We show how much it absorbs and grows in just one hour.

“These things are everywhere. I have so many friends and family that have messaged me that said I have those in my house, those are sitting on my kitchen table right now,” Rief said.

Dr. Angela Hanna, pediatric surgeon, was part of the team that cared for Letty.

She says the material of the water bead doesn’t show up on X-ray or ultrasound.

“And so it just looks like fluid when we’re looking at it with any of our imaging devices. And so it blends in with the surrounding fluid of the intestines,” Hanna said.

Hanna’s message to parents is to keep anything small out of reach.

“Again, just to keep an eye on the little ones and the things that they love to grab and put in their mouth,” she said.

And Rief is reminding moms they know their child best.

“All the mothers out there probably know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s just something that you know. In your heart and in your gut,” she said.

With Letty no longer on morphine, Rief is just ready to get her baby out of the intensive care unit.

“Oh, I can’t wait. I can’t wait. She is the most happy, loving baby,” she said. “I think she’ll be OK. Just ready to go home.”

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