Location: Atlantic Beach, North Carolina
Date: December 9, 1993
On December 9, 1993, David Joyce and his wife, Kimberly, began preparing for the holidays. Kimberly's twin brother, Henry Miller, and his family were staying with them at the time and everyone was looking forward to spending the holidays together. But they didn't know that it would become a Christmas that none of them would ever forget.
"I've been told that I have an enormous amount of Christmas decorations! I like to totally decorate the house. I mean, I want it to be a Christmas wonderland for the kids," said Kimberly. Her 9-year-old daughter, Melanie, was helping to decorate while her 11-month-old brother, Nathaniel, watched.
"I just love to have him around. To me, it seems like he loves everybody," said Melanie. "I was told in 1980 that I wouldn't be able to have any more children. But when David and I fell in love, we were able to have Nathaniel. He's our miracle baby. He's the baby I was told I'd never have," Kimberly remembers.
Kimberly, her family, and all the guests gathered together to help decorate the house. "Nathaniel has a sensitive reflexer, where he easily gags excessively to the point of sometimes passing out," said Kimberly. The children cheered as their father proceeded to put up the Christmas tree. "We decided to put the artificial tree up because we didn't want pine needles all over the floor," recalls Kimberly. "With a real Christmas tree, Nathaniel could pick them up, swallow them, and they would get stuck in his throat," said David.
Around 6pm, Kimberly's sister-in-law, Mary Miller, was preparing dinner. "I vacuum the floor every day, sometimes twice a day, because Nathaniel tries to eat everything that he can get his hands on," Kimberly said matter-of-factly. She put him next to his sister and they sat and watched Barney together. Suddenly, Mary heard coughing coming from the living room. "Nathaniel, Nathaniel, what's the matter?," she asked. But he didn't answer.
Mary immediately called out to Kimberly. "Kimberly, he's choking," she said. She then instructed Kimberly to put Nathaniel over the sink. "My first thought was it was just his reflexer and that there was nothing really to be alarmed about. And that's when I put my finger in his mouth and I felt metal in the back of his throat," said Kimberly. Mary proceeded to give Nathaniel back blows, but whatever was in there was stuck and she couldn't get it out. "I'll never forget the look on his face. I'll never forget the look in his eyes. He said, 'Please help me, Mommy', and I couldn't help him," Kimberly said, crying.
A frantic Kimberly called 911, and her call was answered by Atlantic Beach Police dispatcher Pamela Hanson. "When people start screaming at you, your adrenaline level goes up. You know there's the possibility somebody's life is in danger," said Hanson. Henry came in to help and took the phone from her. "Kimberly was very hysterical. I wasn't sure if they could understand what she was telling them because I could hardly understand it," recalls Henry. He had to advise Hanson that Nathaniel had something made of metal in his throat and that he was passing out.
"His eyes and face were swelling. You're holding your baby and he's not breathing," Kimberly cried. "At that point, my heart practically stopped because when he's not breathing, that indicates possible death," said Mary. "Being a child not knowing what to do and then an adult not knowing what to do either scared me. I love him more than anything," cried Melanie. "You want somebody else to make you feel like you're overreacting and that your child's not dying. You're just thinking that. The look on their faces told me that it wasn't just me," remembers Kimberly.
The first rescue worker to arrive was police officer Bud Sheldon. "Emotions were running high. He's not moving at all. No breathing, no crying, nothing. His chances of life were starting to falter. So I flipped him over onto his stomach, and gave him a couple back blows. He was actually trying to throw the object back up, but he was just throwing up a lot of blood. I couldn't imagine what he had swallowed that would cut him," said Sheldon.
Within four minutes of the call, Atlantic Beach EMS arrived, including EMT Ann Murdoch. "Because the baby's airway is small, even though there was air going past the object at that time, there was no assurance to us that whatever it was would not close it off again. Once we got the baby into the ambulance, we knew we had to get him to the hospital fast. We know with a baby we don't have a lot of time," said Murdoch. "The ambulance then started racing. Their siren went on, and they just took off. I was afraid he was dying, if not already dead," said Kimberly.
Nathaniel was rushed to Carteret General Hospital. Pediatrician John Knelson took over his care. "When I asked the EMT people what happened, they said when they lay him on his back, he quits breathing. You have to be careful not to dislodge or move the object while you're trying to find it and therefore precipitate a catastrophe while you're trying to fix the situation. I decided the best thing to do would be to take an X-ray to see if we could identify the object, so we could go after it in a more planned way, rather than just fishing for it," explained Dr. Knelson.
"He had swallowed the top of a Christmas ornament. I don't know how he ever could have swallowed such an item. But there it sat, plain as day!" said David. Thoracic Specialist Richard Ray was called in to perform the procedure to remove the object. "When I looked, I saw that the part of the ornament with the hole was sitting right in the baby's larynx, so he was actually breathing through this little hole," said Ray. "To stand there helplessly and listen to your son crying and screaming, and to know that there's nothing you can do but wait and hope, that was the hardest thing I had to deal with," said David.
"It took a little finagling, twisting, and maneuvering to to get ahold of that spring. And when we were able to get ahold of both ends and pull them together, that released it from the tissue, and it came out quite easily. When you get that out, it's like the Hallelujah Chorus. Everybody in the emergency room cheers. It's a good time!," exclaimed Ray.
"I just looked at the nurse, and she kind of handed me Nathaniel," cried Kimberly. "When I found out that he was going to be okay, I was running around the house, jumping for joy! I was hugging everybody and twirling them around. I was happy," said Melanie.
Nathaniel was released from the hospital the next day without any permanent injury. "Nathaniel has had his first birthday, and he's learning to walk now. All the things you anticipate, that could've easily been taken away from us," said Kimberly. "I love my son very much. I really wish there was some way that the police, paramedics, and physicians could realize the appreciation that we feel. I am deeply indebted to all of those that are involved," said David.
"If the mother had not called 911, the baby would not be here today. Everyone should know how to call 911. It's only three little numbers. Small children can remember that. If they can remember their phone number, they can remember 911," said Hanson. "It really is necessary to babyproof a home, to keep small objects that can be swallowed out of a baby's reach. Particularly around the holidays, when you have extra people and extra decorations, parents need to be extra careful," said Dr. Knelson.
"I keep this bulb top with me at all times. It's a reminder to me to make sure that you never take any moment in life for granted. Life is about living, enjoying, sharing, and loving. Love is all there is," said David. "I think the Joyce family received the best Christmas present any parents can ever receive, the life of their baby," said Mary.