Real Life

Real life: I went into a coma after trying to cure hiccups

My life was destroyed with a single spoonful to cure my hiccups.

By Brittany Smith

Amanda Merrifield, 44, from the Gold Coast, Qld, shares her true life story:

I wiped my mouth and glanced at the clock.
"It's getting late," I said to my friend and client, Jim. "I should head off."
My 22-month-old son, Jack, was at home with a babysitter and I couldn't be late.
My hubby, Bob, and I led hectic lives.
He travelled a lot with work and I was aiming towards a promotion, hoping to one day become a barrister.
Time was precious but I'd squeezed in a quick chat with Jim over dinner.
I'd just opened my mouth to ask for the cheque when I suddenly hiccupped.
"That was loud," I giggled self-consciously.
The owner of the restaurant, David*, heard me.
"I've got a fail-safe remedy for hiccups," he beamed, rushing off to the kitchen.
He came back with a spoonful of clear liquid.
I'd been to this restaurant before and trusted David, but didn't know what this concoction was.
"Down the hatch!" David encouraged.
Not wanting to be rude, I swallowed it in one gulp.
I froze as a burning sensation instantly tore down my throat, setting my insides on fire.
It was a pain so intense I thought my heart was going to explode.
"You okay?" Jim asked as my hands clutched at my neck.
Each second felt like an eternity as he called an ambulance.
David brushed it off.
Me with Jack, before the poisoning.
"She's overreacting," he shrugged. "I didn't give her anything bad."
At hospital, no one knew what was wrong or what I'd swallowed.
When a doc shone a torch down my throat, my tongue was so swollen I couldn't make a sound.
"It looks like you've ingested something caustic," he frowned.
My eyes widened in fear.
I'd drunk acid?!
I was rushed to a larger hospital, where doctors tried to push a camera down my throat to see the damage.
Because I'd recently eaten, it was too dangerous to put me under.
So I was fully awake as they inserted the camera past my charred insides.
I writhed in agony as around 10 doctors and nurses held me down.
It felt like a burning iron was sliding down into my stomach.
I could tell from their worried faces that the images they were seeing were bad.
As I was prepped for a tracheotomy and induced coma, all I could think about was Jack.
You need to stay alive for him, I told myself.
The night I was poisoned and put into a coma.
Bob's warm hand holding mine was the first thing I felt as my eyes blinked open.
My whole family was there. They looked terrified but I was relieved.
At least I'd survived.
Before I got a chance to talk to them, a detective came over to ask questions.
I'd been in a coma for three days and the police had been investigating the poisoning.
"You consumed pure industrial-strength oven cleaner," he explained.
My mind raced as I struggled to comprehend the news.
How could this have happened?
If I'd been a child, an elderly person or a smoker, I would have been dead.
It was a miracle I wasn't!
"The restaurant's owner said he'd asked the chef for vinegar to cure your hiccups," the detective continued.
"The oven cleaner was kept in the kitchen and the bottle looked similar to the one that contains vinegar. The chef claimed he mistook the oven cleaner for vinegar."
I was dumbfounded.
It was against every health and safety regulation to store cleaning products in a working kitchen.
This should never have happened.
But I couldn't focus on my anger when my life was in danger.
After I had my stomach and oesophagus removed.
The poison had burned through my oesophagus and doctors warned that if I so much as coughed, the pressure could rupture it, causing fatal internal bleeding.
I couldn't even swallow. My saliva was mixed with thick mucus, which I had to spit into a bag.
If I slept for more than 10 minutes, I'd wake up feeling as though I was drowning, with the saliva and mucus pooling around my lungs.
Bob brought Jack in to see me but he was so terrified at seeing all the tubes sticking out of me that he wouldn't leave his dad's side.
"It's Mummy," I croaked, but he didn't recognise me.
Devastated that a simple mistake had ruined my life, I spiralled into a deep depression.
My health was gone, I couldn't work and my own son was scared of me.
In my darkest moments I became suicidal and the hospital staff had to watch me 24/7.
But with my family's support and love, I managed to pull through.
Over the next four years, I had over 80 surgeries to fix my savaged organs, including steroid injections, stents inserted in my oesophagus, feeding tubes inserted and treatments to heal the burns.
My stomach and oesophagus had been severely damaged.
With scarring and singed flesh all the way from my mouth to my tummy, I struggled to swallow or process food.
I had no bowel control and suffered constant pain.
Me with my medicine pump.
Recovery at home was so intense, I was let go from my job and had to hire a full-time carer to help with Jack.As a last-ditch effort to improve my quality of life, a surgeon removed my stomach and oesophagus.
He salvaged the bottom of my stomach to use as a tube, connecting my throat to my intestines so food could pass straight through.
I can still absorb nutrients but what I can eat is limited.
It's mostly just vegetables that are cooked enough to mash.
The surgery was successful but it hasn't made much of a difference.
I'm often left doubled over in pain.
Jack's slowly starting to understand what happened, but it's still really hard on him.
"I wish you weren't sick, Mummy," he tells me.
It isn't fair that my recovery meant I missed out on teaching him to talk and read.
That's something I'll never get back.
Now Bob's working tirelessly to help pay for my medical expenses and he's constantly worried about me.David has always maintained giving me the oven cleaner was an accident and, legally, he isn't obliged to give us any money.
His insurer made a payout to us years ago, but it wasn't enough to cover the money I'd already lost, let alone any ongoing expenses.
I had a feeding tube inserted.
I'll be on medication for the rest of my life and the operations to help keep me alive aren't over.
Our savings have been drained dry.
Now I'm seeking legal action for $5 million from David's insurer, not for myself but so I can pay back Medicare for the money they've spent on my 82 surgeries.
According to the law, I will always be financially responsible for any future medical costs for this injury and I'll need medication until the day I die.
I'm lucky to be alive but it's a shell of the life I had before, all thanks to one small spoonful.

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