Health & Wellness

A swallowed button battery. 65 surgeries. Boy, 5, now breathes easier

The medical journey for 5-year-old Emmett Rauch has consumed nearly his entire life. But Emmett is now on the soccer field — and eating and talking again after enduring 65 surgeries. In 2010, when barely 1, he swallowed a nickel-sized, lithium battery from a DVD remote, burning his esophagus and closing off his airway. You may recall reading about Emmett's fight to recover last summer when surgeons rebuilt his esophagus using part of his colon, and opened his paralyzed vocal chords. In December 2014, he had his tracheostomy tube removed, and now everyone, including Emmett, is breathing easier.

Emmett’s fight to live turned his mother, Karla Rauch, into an activist to spread awareness about the dangers of button, coin and cell batteries. Each year, more than 3,500 kids are treated in emergency rooms — and 15 have died in the last six years — after swallowing the tiny objects. Karla tells her story with the help of TODAY contributor Susan Donaldson James.

Emmett had just had his first birthday. It was a Saturday, and we noticed he had a fever and was coughing, but there had been no choking episode. The doctor said it was just a cold and had to run its course. But he was lethargic and crying every time he tried to eat.

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The Rauch family: Karla and Michael and their children Emmett, 5, and Ethan, 7.

On the following Tuesday, when Emmett coughed and blood came up, we called the pediatrician. I was freaking out. She said it sounded like croup and sent us home. But as I was walking to the car, the pediatrician came out and said, ‘I have this feeling — send him to the ER.’ 

They took an X-ray and when the radiologist came out, he said it was a button battery. He could even read the battery’s serial number. Emmett was rushed by ambulance to Phoenix Children’s Hospital. I remember running as I signed the consent form.

After a three-hour surgery, the surgeon said it looked like a ‘firecracker had gone off’ in Emmett’s esophagus. It was lodged a centimeter above the aorta and they couldn’t tell if he’d survive. At that moment, we fell apart. How did we not know? And where did he get the battery?

It was a scary night. His heart stopped and they revived him. The battery had come from the remote control from our DVD player. The back had just popped right off.

Emmett lived in the ICU for eight months in 2011, and there were times when we thought he would pass away. It was very humbling to watch him, because he has this fighting spirit. He stole the hearts of all the nurses and doctors with his beautiful smile.

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An X-ray of the nickel-sized button battery that Emmett Rauch swallowed. Surgeons said it went "off like a firecracker" in his esophagus.

He had 13 major surgeries, six of those at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. The last one, they took half his stomach to recreate his esophagus, but the tissue was so damaged it didn’t hold up. They ended up stapling the bottom half of his esophagus outside his neck for three months, then put in a gastric or feeding tube to give him food and water.

In 2012, they referred us to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center for a really rare surgery— they removed his entire esophagus and replaced it with his colon. In another operation, they took two inches from his rib cartilage to open up his vocal chords, which were paralyzed.

It’s one of the hardest things I have ever been through. But we had a really great support system and a strong faith in God. Every day, even when he was in a medical coma, we would talk positively to him: ‘Emmett, you can do this.’

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Emmett Rauch in the ICU at Phoenix Children's Hospital in 2010 after swallowing a button battery from a DVD remote.

We went online to find support and there was very little, only a paragraph by the National Poison Control Center. While we were in the hospital in Phoenix, a Hispanic boy was flown in from Yuma and he had the exact same thing, but there was a language barrier involving his family and the staff. The social worker asked if I would be comfortable talking to his mother. I broke down in tears because, I realized, this had become our mission. So we started an awareness campaign coordinating with Safe Kids and National Poison Control.

WATCH: After 65 surgeries, boy can breathe on his own

In homes, button batteries are now listed among on the top 10 items that parents should monitor to keep their kids safe. The injuries caused by swallowing them are preventable. Almost everyone has things like remotes and key fobs in their homes, and the batteries inside can be lethal.

Since starting Emmett’s Fight 2011, we've received letters from parents as far away as South Africa and India. Every story is the same: Parents don’t see their kids choking, and it gets misdiagnosed. We didn’t know, and our pediatrician never said anything.

If you think your child swallowed a battery, get to an emergency room. Time is of the essence. The saliva triggers an electrical current and causes a chemical reaction that can burn the esophagus in as little as two hours.

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Emmett Rauch at his first soccer practice after having his tracheostomy removed just three weeks ago.

Today, due to his tiny stomach, Emmett has a Jejunal tube, a feeding tube that is inserted in his small intestine so that he gets enough nutrition. But he is relearning how to swallow and can almost eat a whole piece of pizza. He speaks with his false vocal chords and his voice is always going to be raspy and robotic sounding, but the Cincinnati hospital has given him a chance to live, and we will be forever indebted to them.

Emmett is doing well. He loves wrestling with his older brother and he’s playing with his friends on the trampoline and the swing set. He had his first soccer practice, which he’s been waiting to do.

I look at life differently now. You treasure moments. We didn’t know how long Emmett would be with us. Every kiss, every hug, every ‘I love you’ is so important. We realize what is important in life.

Before, I was a quiet and reserved person. Speaking out in the community would have never happened. I would have been scared to death. Somehow, I found my voice for Emmett. At that moment I knew what God wanted us to do and he has led us every step of the way.

I am heartbroken that Emmett has had to suffer, and I would have taken his place in a heartbeat. But I am grateful that there is some sort of silver lining and that is helping to save other children from suffering and possibly losing their lives!

How much do you know about button battery safety? Tips from Safe Kids and National Poison Control:

  • Button batteries are found in small remotes, car key fobs, mini remotes that control MP3 speakers, calculators, bathroom scales, reading lights, flameless candles, talking books, singing greeting cards, watches, thermometers, hearing aids, flashing jewelry, ornaments, games and toys.
  • Keep loose batteries out of the reach and sight of children. Use duct tape to secure remote controls and other devices with these batteries
  • Do not allow children to play with batteries.
  • Store new and used batteries like medication, out of the reach of children or in a locked cabinet.
  • Check to see if battery compartments on toys and other household products are secured.
  • Secure (using strong tape) battery compartments of toys and other household products.
  • If battery compartments are loose or broken, keep product out of the reach of children.
  • Try to purchase products with battery compartments that require a tool to open.
  • Never change batteries in front of children.
  • Call Poison Control (1-800-222-1222) and seek immediate medical attention if a battery has been swallowed. A lithium battery begins to burn within two hours.
  • Tell doctors and nurses that it might be a button battery.
  • If possible, provide the identification number found on the battery’s package.
  • Do not let the child eat or drink until a chest X-ray can determine if a battery is present 
  • Do not induce vomiting.
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