My Child Swallowed Lighter Fluid

By: Katie Wiltsey

It's a day I'll remember for the rest of my life. My husband, Brian, and I had taken our girls to a friend’s house to play in their backyard—something we'd done 100 times. Tess was 2 years old and our oldest daughter, Brooke, was 5.

Our lives would change in a matter of seconds.

While playing outside, Tess found a nearly empty bottle of lighter fluid by a fire pit. Toddler curiosity got the best of her, and she lifted the bottle to her lips to see how it tasted. It happened in an instant—and surrounded by adults.

My friend’s husband saw her gagging, scooped her up and brought her inside. She quickly became unresponsive, turned grayish-blue and stopped breathing. As a nurse, I knew this was serious. After calling 911, she was taken by ambulance to the emergency department at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

In the hours, weeks and months that followed, the afternoon played on loop in our heads. We still have so many questions, and we probably always will. How much was in there? How did she open the bottle?

I'm a pediatric nurse. How could this happen to us?

While Tess was in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, I sang to her until I felt a peace that she would be healed. She was on IV fluids, breathing treatments and antibiotics. She got worse over the first 24 hours, which was expected, but eventually showed positive signs of improvement each day. The people at Children’s saved her life.

While Tess is safely home with us now, the road to recovery has taken months. Many children do not survive a hydrocarbon ingestion, which most often happens after swallowing gasoline, kerosene, mineral oil, lamp oil or paint thinner. We got lucky.

I beg you: Be vigilant about checking your home and yards for potential chemical hazards. There are more chemical hazards around the house than those found under sinks and behind cabinets. It can happen in seconds—the amount of time it takes to grab a plate, flip a burger or skewer a marshmallow.

Keep cleaners and other toxic products out of reach.

  • Store all household products out of children’s sight and reach. Young children are often eye level with items under the kitchen and bathroom sinks. Any bleach, detergents, dishwasher liquid or cleaning solutions kept under the sink should find a new storage location.
  • Install child safety locks on cabinets where poisonous items are stored. It only takes a few minutes and will give you one less thing to worry about.
  • Read product labels to find out what can be hazardous to kids. Dangerous household items include makeup, personal care products, plants, pesticides, lead, art supplies, alcohol and carbon monoxide.
  • Don’t leave poisonous products unattended while in use. Many incidents happen when adults are distracted for a moment on the phone or at the door.
  • Check your garage, basement and other storage areas for cleaning and work supplies you no longer need and can discard.

Have the American Association of Poison Control Centers on speed dial.

  • Program the toll-free number for Poison Control (800-222-1222) into your home and mobile phone, and post it near your phone or refrigerator for the babysitter. Hopefully you’ll never need it, but it’s nice to be prepared.
  • Poison Control Centers offer fast, free, confidential help in English and Spanish. Most poisonings are resolved over the phone. The number works from anywhere in the United States 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • If you suspect your child has been poisoned, call Poison Control. If your child has collapsed or is not breathing, call 911.
  • Do not make your child vomit or give him anything unless directed by a professional.

I’m a pediatric nurse, and my child almost died after swallowing a household chemical. Learn from my family’s mistake; don’t let it happen to you.