Chilling Medical Dramas: The Mystery of the Boy Who Turned Blue

A mysterious blockage in this child's lung collapsed his parents' world.

popcorn in lungs
Nick Veasey for Reader’s Digest

The 2011 holiday season was rough for Rece Mostek. The 19-month-old from Omaha had spent much of November and December in and out of doctors’ offices with coughs, colds, and fevers. His condition had deteriorated so much that he was hospitalized with pneumonia for four days in February 2012. Even upon his release one Thursday morning, doctors warned his parents that he was not out of the woods yet.

Just an hour after he arrived home—and under his father Jamie’s watchful eye—Rece began to cough uncontrollably and turn blue.

Believing that his son was choking on a piece of Play-Doh, Jamie called 911 and began CPR. An ambulance arrived a few minutes later. The first responders gave Rece oxygen and rushed him to the nearest hospital. He arrived critically ill, limp, and still blue. When intubating Rece with a breathing tube made little difference, the ER doctor knew that an obstruction was preventing air from entering his lungs. However, she noticed that his oxygen levels rose whenever she placed him on his right side, which indicated that the blockage probably wasn’t in his throat. Chest X-rays revealed the problem was in Rece’s lungs. His right lung was inflamed from pneumonia and was collapsing, and a foreign body—that wasn’t visible on the X-ray—likely blocked the left.

The doctors had to move quickly; Rece’s risk of brain damage increased each time his oxygen levels dipped too low. A transport team rushed Rece to the pediatric intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center about 20 minutes away, where specialists would try to surgically remove the obstruction. Once there, Rece was placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a bypass pump that provides oxygen when a patient’s lungs can no longer function. For the next 45 minutes, pediatric pulmonologist Paul Sammut, MD, and a team of surgeons tried to grasp and remove the object with a variety of tools. Dr. Sammut finally succeeded with a tool used by urologists to extract kidney stones.

Meanwhile, the Mosteks spent a frantic hour trying to comprehend the dire nature of Rece’s situation. Then Dr. Sammut entered the waiting room and gave the worried parents a thumbs-up. Inside a plastic vial was the unbelievable item that had nearly taken Rece’s life: a popcorn kernel that had been lodged in his left lung.

Rece’s condition was the result of a perfect storm. Months earlier, he had inhaled a kernel of popcorn, which became lodged in his right lung. This led to infections and breathing problems, including pneumonia. But his excessive coughing earlier that day had thrust the kernel from the right lung and propelled it into his left lung, where it unluckily blocked his airway.

Today, Rece’s breathing is strong, and there is no sign of brain damage from oxygen deprivation. A tiny scar on the side of his neck where the breathing tube was inserted is the only remnant of his life-threatening ordeal. The Mosteks are much more wary of giving him popcorn now. “Whenever I see people feeding their young kids popcorn and not paying attention, I want to warn them to be careful!” says Rece’s mother, Brenda. Witness a great medical miracle: this photo of the first X-ray ever. 

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest