This medical mystery shouldn’t have been one, man says

This medical mystery shouldn’t have been one, man says »Play Video
Chris Jones and his wife Arda.

LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. - For two and a half years Chris Jones of Lake Oswego thought he was dying. 

He knew what was causing his slow demise, but he says his doctors wouldn’t listen to him. "I wish this had ended, with the doctors saying sorry," he said, now that his health is on the mend.

Jones’ troubles began on a morning in early January of 2008. He was about to leave for work when he paused in his kitchen to take his daily vitamins.  In a hurry, he filled an empty diet Coke can with tap water, and then took a swig to wash the pills down. "I knew right away I was in trouble,” he recalls. 

Jones, 51, took the drink while forgetting about his habit of breaking off the aluminum tab on top of the can.  He had done just that the previous night and forgot he dropped the piece of metal inside. He inhaled the tab and it became lodged in his windpipe.
 
Jones went to his doctor who took an X-ray of his chest.  The X-ray was clear – no pop top visible.  Jones says the doctor told him he must have swallowed the pop tab, that it was somewhere in his digestive system, and that nature would take its course.

"From that moment on, our life took spin," said his wife, Arda.

Jones says he was constantly out of breath and suffered violent coughing attacks in which he would spit up blood. Jones says his primary care doctor sent him to a lung specialist. Jones says he also told that doctor about the pop tab incident.

Again, Jones says X-rays showed nothing even though Jones’ health continued to decline.  Jones says his doctor diagnosed him with pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, and asthma.  Then he says the diagnosis was C.O.P.D. (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), which is a condition commonly suffered by smokers.  Jones says he only smoked an occasional cigar.  

Jones was treated with doses of steroids and antibiotics for repeated infections.  There were repeated trips to urgent care for inhalation therapy.

"I went into decline over the months. It wore me down," he said.  

"One of my daughters came to me and said, 'Mom, Chris looks like he's going to die. Is he dying?'" said Arda.

"We made some decisions based on the fact I probably wasn't going to be here that much longer," said Jones.  "I just figured that it was going to be a decline until it was done."

What doctors didn't know was that Jones’ body was trying to encapsulate the aluminum tab the same way a tree grows around a nail, rope, wire or other foreign object.  As tissue grew around the aluminum tab it began to block off the airway to one of his lungs. 

Jones says after a while he didn’t bug his doctors about whether the aluminum tab could be the cause, because he trusted that they knew what they were talking about.

"I put it out of my mind for the most part unless someone specifically asked me timeline, because they assured me, the primary care doc, doctor Young assured me a metal object would show up like a flare on any X-ray."

Jones pressed his doctors to do more.  In May of last year, his doctor ordered a CAT scan of Jones’ chest.  That’s when the medical staff spotted something in his trachea that didn’t belong. 

"The doctor called me right back in and asked me if I'd ever inhaled a metal object that I could remember, and I said 'Yes, that's what started all this.’ The same thing I told him two years earlier,” said Jones. “It’s like nobody had a clue what was going on, I was lost in the system. I was a file."

The notes from Jones first doctor, clearly read: "Pop can lid, swallow, choking."

The second doctor – the lung specialist – also wrote in his notes the very first time he met Jones: "Swallowed a pop can tab."

When the doctor finally stuck a camera down Jones' windpipe he got a clear picture of what was causing all the mysterious symptoms.  The image showed the aluminum tab lodged sideways in Jones’ trachea with body tissue growing around it.

Jones says his doctor tried to pull the pop tab out, but it wouldn’t come loose.  Jones was scheduled for a more invasive procedure, and he was told to return in a few days.  Jones never got the chance.

While Jones waited for the surgery day to arrive, he was alone at work one evening - all the other employees had gone home - when he began having a coughing fit and extreme difficulty breathing.  Jones feared he was about to pass out and then choke to death. 

"I have a bar stool – I sit at a counter – I took a bar stool, put it on my stomach and flopped over on it, onto the floor and drove it into the floor as hard as I could."

The aluminum tab - enveloped in flesh and blood - flew out of his mouth. The relief was instant. "Felt real good afterwards," said Jones.

But Jones still had to pay the medical expenses that built up over the two and a half years he went undiagnosed.   

"At first I asked them to write-off the balances of what we owed and move on, they refused to do that, and they just keep hounding us for payments and we send them a little bit of money every month."

KATU tried to contact Jones’ primary care doctor about why the pop tab was missed and to ask about the medical bills. A spokesperson for Columbia Family Medical Associates says the doctor is gone for several months and unreachable. KATU’s attempts to contact the doctor through other means were also unsuccessful.

KATU also tried to reach Jones’ lung specialist; however, Dr. Lou Libby, the chief medical officer for the Oregon Clinic answered our inquiry instead. "We do not respond to media inquiries about our patients,” said Libby.

Jones sought the advice of a medical malpractice lawyer.  He says the attorney concluded it was not worth suing the doctors because Jones’ long-term complications are not severe enough to warrant a monetary judgment to justify the cost of a trial.

It has now been 12 months since Jones’ medical mystery was solved.  As time goes on, his health improves.  He still wonders what happened to a small piece of the aluminum tab that broke off and is still missing, but not affecting his health - so far.

"It’s embarrassing  to say this is what I did, it’s an idiot move, here’s what happened, I know this is in here, and I know this is causing my problem, and go through two years of hell, before they find it,” said Jones. "I'm glad it's over, I want to get back to life."