On June 28, Kim and Darcy Schellenberg sat down with son Quinton to enjoy some homemade barbecued burgers. Darcy took a bite and realized there was one topping that did not belong.
“He had gotten a little piece on his tongue just before me and he took it and threw it in the garbage and had said ‘Oh, a piece of barbecue brush,’” explained Kim.
Moments later, the 46-year-old artist took her own bite.
“At first when I was chewing I didn’t feel it, but then as some of the food moved away there was something there, and by that time it was so far back that I couldn’t get enough tongue thrust to move it forward to get it out. And then ‘bang,’ it was stuck.”
Kim had ingested a miniscule bristle from the grill brush that Darcy had used to clean the couple’s barbecue. She failed at an attempt to pluck it out with a long pair of tweezers, and as the moments passed she could feel what felt like a two-ended pin poke its way further and further down her throat.
The Schellenbergs headed to the Red Deer Regional Hospital where a CT scan showed the wire lodged in her throat. But without an ear, neck and throat surgeon on call that night, the couple was told that they would have to head to Calgary’s Foothills Hospital for a surgery to get it out.
By the time the appropriate surgeon was available, hours had passed since the ingestion, and the wire was no longer where it had been seen earlier. Surgeons were concerned the wire could have poked itself out of her esophagus or moved down, where it could damage other organs or puncture arteries.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t this be a stupid way to die — death by barbecue brush? Is this what my legacy is going to be, death by barbecue brush?’ It was really that macabre sense of humour that got us through,” said Kim.
A subsequent scan would show the bristle in her small intestine. Ultimately, doctors let Schellenberg out of the hospital on July 2, telling her they hope the wire has simply worked its way out of her system.
Like most people, Kim did not ever think barbecuing could present such a danger. But through research in the days since the accident, she has found many cases of bristle ingestion and was told by one friend how a relative’s bowel got sliced up from a stray wire.
Cheap grill brushes abound, and in 2012 a report from the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was devoted to cases of people being affected by grill bristles. The report suggested people might want to use other instruments to clean grills.
Upon inspection, the Schellenbergs’ old brush probably contains around 1,500 individual bristles. A quick look at the family grill Monday found at least five loose wires that had become dislodged.
If using a plastic brush with metal bristles, it is recommended to clean one’s grill when it is cold, as when hot the plastic could start to expand, releasing bristles.
There are other grill-cleaning tools on the market, from blocks made of recycled glass and something called Grillfloss to nylon bristle brushes and metal and wooden scrapers. Darcy says he will make his own wooden scraper to use the next time the couple feels like barbecuing.
Since the accident many friends have contacted the Schellenbergs to say they were throwing their brushes in the trash. The Schellenbergs’ own relatively-new brush was there too, but it has since been pulled out and Kim joked that maybe it should be framed and put up in the house.
Kim said she does not plan to try getting compensation out of the brush maker and will be satisfied making people more aware of what they should look out for.
“A lot of the time we don’t look at that barbecue brush until it’s down to a little greasy nub, so where did it all go? How much of that did you ingest without knowing?” she said.
She is still dealing with some pain resulting from the surgery and having trouble eating. The stitches in her neck will likely remain for another week.