In late October 2020, a spunky 17-month-old named Reese started wheezing. Her mother, Trista Hamsmith, took the congested, stuffy toddler to the pediatrician, who said it was likely croup.
Soon afterward, the concerned mom noticed that a button battery was missing from a remote control. Gripped with dread, the Hamsmith family raced to the local emergency room with Reese. That’s when they learned devastating news: Reese had swallowed the tiny battery, and it had caused a hole in her esophagus.
“Once the battery is ingested, it starts to erode and it starts to burn,” Hamsmith, 39, of Lubbock, Texas, told TODAY Parents. “Button battery ingestion is so much more common that people realize.”
Reese never recovered. She died on Dec. 17, 2020.
Now, as the holiday season and the one-year anniversary of her daughter's death loom, Hamsmith is reminding parents to exercise extreme caution with the small batteries found in some toys and other holiday gifts.
“This story needs to be told,” Reese’s mother said. “It didn’t have to happen.”
The dangers of button batteries
Even as a toddler, Reese was a star.
“It’s almost like she demanded applause,” her mom said. “I’m not even kidding — she captivated the room.”
That’s one reason why Hamsmith became so worried when, at the end of October, Reese became lethargic, congested and wheezy. Her pediatrician diagnosed her with croup over the weekend and gave her medication, telling her parents to bring her back on Monday if she worsened. As soon as Hamsmith noticed the button battery was missing, she said the family “hauled booty” to get to the emergency room.
“They did an X-ray and confirmed that it was in there and they did emergency surgery to remove the battery,” she said.
Dr. Emily Durkin, who did not treat Reese, said that swallowing button batteries can cause serious injuries for some children, especially if the batteries become lodged in the esophagus. The esophagus has two areas that are narrow, at the upper and lower end, and button batteries often get trapped there.
“If you get a narrow, flat, pancake-like button battery that gets stuck at one of these natural narrowings, then the front wall of the esophagus collapses against the button battery and the back wall,” said Durkin, medical director of children’s surgery at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “(This) completes that circuit, and electric current actually flows through the esophageal tissues. And when that happens, it starts to kill the tissues at the burn.”
That can “very rapidly” create a hole in the esophagus, which can lead to loads of complications, Durkin said.
“It can be just a devastating injury for a child,” Durkin explained. “It can require operations and having to be fed with a tube.”
Reese underwent emergency surgery in late October and was released home after a short hospital stay. A few days later, the Hamsmith family returned to the emergency room when Reese’s condition began to decline again. The surgeon wanted to do a CT scan.
“We found out that a fistula had been created, which is like a passageway,” Hamsmith said. “There was a hole burned through her trachea and through her esophagus. When that tunnel formed, it was allowing air to go where it didn’t need to be. Food and drinks also went where they didn’t need to go.”
Doctors gave Reese a gastronomy tube to help her receive nutrition by bypassing that hole. She returned to her hospital room sedated on a ventilator.
“That morning was the last morning that we saw her as herself,” Hamsmith said.
The family hoped that in time, Reese would heal without more intervention. But by early December, doctors decided she needed surgery to repair the fistula.
“The surgery went great and then from there it was just more waiting, more resting, more healing,” Hamsmith said. “A few weeks later they tried to take her off the ventilator and she did great.”
One day Hamsmith stepped away from her daughter’s hospital bedside for a few minutes. As she returned, she noticed the hallways were empty — a sign that someone was in distress. She reeled in shock when she entered her daughter’s room and realized the person in distress was Reese.
“I heard them say, ‘Starting compressions,’ and she was gone for about eight to ten minutes,” she said. “We were able to get her back. Ultimately they said she wasn’t strong enough yet.”
Later, the doctors again tried weaning her off the ventilator with little success. They decided to give Reese a tracheostomy to help her breathe.
“It was terrifying for me,” Hamsmith recalled. “But I was also excited that we were just one step closer to getting her back and having her awake again.”
The tracheostomy surgery went well, but three days later, Reese began struggling again. Doctors changed her tracheostomy tube and tried other interventions, but Reese’s vital signs plummeted.
“I started praying. She coded again. They did CPR, all of the things, for about 30 to 40 minutes,” Hamsmith said. “I had never prayed so hard in my life or begged God like that. ...
“We just didn’t get her back.”
Finding purpose in tragedy
Hamsmith said she wants Reese’s story to be shared so that other parents understand the dangers of button batteries. Ultimately, she said she hopes manufacturers will start making safer batteries and that Congress will address it.
“We just need safer batteries,” she said.
“The button batteries that are the most dangerous are typically the ones that are about the size of a nickel or a quarter,” the doctor explained. “Those are the ones that I think shouldn't be made.”
The battery industry has introduced new safety measures in recent years. Duracell, for instance, added a bitter-tasting coating to its lithium coin batteries to help deter accidental ingestions.
Hamsmith said she also hopes manufacturers begin making safer device covers — such as putting screws on compartments with small batteries inside them — so children can’t get into them. "Reese’s Law" was introduced with bi-partisan support in the U.S. House of Representatives on Sept. 21 and in the Senate on Nov. 30. If it passes, the law would require secure battery compartments on consumer products as well as improved warning labeling and packaging.
“Kids are dying,” Hamsmith said. “We’ve got to do everything we can to get this information to parents and put pressure on the industry to make changes to protect the kids.”
Hamsmith has launched an organization called "Reese's Purpose" to advocate for safer batteries and will continue to update people about the group's progress on Reese's Facebook page. She said it feels like a fitting way to remember her larger-than-life daughter.
Editor's note: This story originally ran on TODAY on March 1, 2021.