Aspiring Not to Aspirate

I’m not generally a hypochondriac, but as I’ve gotten older, I have my share of moments when what’s going on in my body scares me. It’s like staying in a haunted house. Every creak, every sensation makes me stop in my tracks and listen. It could just be the old house settling on its foundation. Then again, it could be something malevolent intent on doing me in. Ah, the joys of aging!

Knowing me, however, my demise is more likely to come from doing something really stupid.

Last Thursday night, Mr. Maid and I were eating dinner. It was one of my ordinary weeknight menus of spaghetti with meat sauce and garlic bread.

easy spaghetti

In defiance to all rules of etiquette, I was chewing a big mouthful of pasta while simultaneously trying to talk. I can’t remember what I was saying, but it was making me also start to laugh. The combination of chewing, swallowing, talking, and laughing was apparently a little more multitasking than my brain and body could handle. As the phrase goes, my food went “down the wrong pipe.”

You’ve no doubt had that horrible feeling – gagging and choking, tears forming in your eyes, flailing around for something to drink.

Your esophagus and trachea both screaming “oh no oh no oh no!” while they point the finger of blame at each other.

Esophagus: “She was chewing and trying to swallow, you idiot! You were supposed to stay closed!”

Trachea: “Weren’t you paying attention?! She was talking and laughing so I needed to be open! Besides, opening and closing isn’t my job.”

(Espohagus and Trachea give Epiglottis the side-eye.)

Epiglottis: “Hey man, Left tonsil and I were having a conversation. It’s not my job to listen to every stupid thing she says. The brain tells me to open, I open. Deciding when to do it? That’s above my pay grade.”



Meanwhile, I received the obligatory slap on the back from Mr. Maid, and put my arms up in the air like I’m on a rollercoaster like my Mom always advised in these situations. Mr. Maid (always so annoyingly helpful) points out that since I’m able to cough, I’m not really choking, and therefore not going to die.

I sip water as I get a handle on my gasping and wipe the tears from my eyes. My adrenaline spike slowly subsides.

There a problem though. During the episode, I had the distinct sensation of a spaghetti noodle not just threatening to go down the wrong pipe, but actually doing so.

“Is it possible” I ask Mr. Maid when I can finally speak without hacking “to actually inhale a piece of food? What happens to it? Where does it go? It can kill you right? I’m sure it can kill you!”

choke diagram

Mr. Maid rolls his eyes and asserts that it is very unlikely that I’d actually snorted up a spaghetti noodle, and goes on talking about whatever we were talking about, as if my impending death wasn’t meant to be his top priority.

For the next two days, I still felt like something wasn’t right at the back of my throat. I became convinced that my sinus headache was being caused by the noodle, even though I’m prone to allergies and have had a sinus headache pretty much non-stop for a month. Could the noodle have gone up into my sinuses instead of down into my lung?

I googled “what happens if you inhale food into your lung” and found that it is, indeed possible. Usually, explained one article, when you start to gag and cough, the foreign object pops out of the trachea and goes down the esophagus so quickly that it’s not noticed. The following discomfort is simply the trachea being irritated and scratchy.

Worst-case scenario, though – and how can we be expected to properly obsess without knowing the worst-case scenario – the food can lodge somewhere in the trachea or even lung. It can ultimately cause an infection leading to pneumonia, which of course, will kill you.

Much to Mr. Maid’s annoyance, for the next 48 hours I continued to walk around forcing coughs, and blowing my nose like a fog horn – wondering as I peered into each tissue if the offending piece of pasta would appear. Hey kids – watch me pull a noodle out of my nose! My upper back was sore, which obviously meant something was obstructing my lungs, right?

I decided that if I didn’t feel better by Monday, I would call the doctor, while simultaneously dreading the discussion.

Me: “If something was in my lung would you be able to hear it with the stethoscope?”

Doctor: “What do you think would be in your lung?”

Me: “A spaghetti noodle. I think it’s in there and it’s going to kill me. What’s involved in performing a noodlechtomy? Do you think my insurance will cover it?”

My general practitioner has a non-nonsense bedside manner and a sarcastic wit. It’s part of what I like about him. But I can just picture him tilting his head slightly and smirking as he peers at me as if to say “Yep. She’s finally lost it. Nurse, contact the psych ward.”

Not surprisingly, I felt completely better by Saturday. I no longer had any pain in my back. Trachea and Esophagus had buried the hatchet, although they remain distrustful of Epiglottis.

It’s a dangerous world out there and you need to watch yourself. I dodged a bullet this time. Or a noodle, anyway.

On a serious note:
This post was written in fun, but choking and aspiration can be a real medical emergency. Be on the lookout for the signs, especially when you’re around small children. Learn the Heimlich Maneuver and basic first aid. You may need to save someone’s life someday. Learn more about first aid for choking here.

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