The Wire @ WPI Online
VOLUME 12, NO. 2     JANUARY 1999

Student Gulps into Medical Literature

Michael Mazur '98 had ice cream, not medical history, on his mind in September 1997 when he gathered with fellow members of the WPI Chapter of the Society of Physics Students for the group's annual "welcome back to campus" ice cream social. But within minutes of arriving at the event the WPI senior was on his painful way to being recorded in the medical literature for surviving a bizarre accident.

Mazur, a West Hills, Calif., native who received his bachelor's degree in physics in May, swallowed liquid nitrogen and lived—possibly the first person to do so. The response and cooperation of emergency medical teams from WPI, the city of Worcester, and the nearby University of Massachusetts Medical Center (now UMass Memorial Health Care) helped beat the odds and save his life.

Mazur tells the story: "As tradition dictates, we made our own ice cream, using liquid nitrogen as a refrigerant and aerator. We spilled a little of the nitrogen onto a table and watched tiny little drops of it dance around."

The table provided a cushion of air for the drop to sit on and thermally insulated it to minimize further evaporation—enabling it to do its little dance without scarring the table, boiling away or being "smeared" out. "It's this principle," he says, "that makes it possible for someone to dip his wet hand into molten lead or to put liquid nitrogen in his mouth without injury."

To prove it to the doubting ice cream socializers, Mazur poured some into a glass and into his mouth—fully expecting to impress the crowd by blowing smoke rings. But then he swallowed. "Within two seconds I had collapsed on the floor, unable to breathe or feel anything other than intense pain."

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"Michael performed a stunt he and other students and teachers have been doing for years," says Thomas Keil, head of WPI's Physics Department. "Only this time, for some reason, he swallowed the liquid nitrogen. That turned a trick into a life-threatening medical emergency."

WPI Campus Police Officers and Emergency Medical Service members responded within two minutes. They took Mazur's vital signs, kept him stable and comfortable, and gathered information for Worcester EMTs, who arrived shortly thereafter and administered oxygen and transported him to UMass.

"Michael was conscious when he came in to the emergency ward," says Dr. Paul Bankey, associate professor of surgery. "He had signs of perforation of the stomach on x-ray (a surgical emergency) and was at risk for perforation of his esophagus. His evaluation required the coordinated efforts of the emergency and thoracic surgery departments as well as the general surgery team. Luckily, during surgery we found that only his stomach was injured, as this is more easily dealt with than the esophagus."

When you swallow anything, your epiglottis closes; in Mazur's case it kept the nitrogen, now a gas, from escaping and forced it into his body. As a result, his entire gastrointestinal tract was scarred, burned and perforated, one of his lungs collapsed because of pressure within his chest cavity from the expanding gas, and part of his stomach had to be removed. Despite the seriousness and scope of the injuries, Mazur began breathing on his own within a few days, was walking within one week, and released from the hospital in two weeks.

"We operated on Michael's abdomen and conservatively managed the gas in his chest with success," says Dr. Karl D. Pilson, a trauma/critical care fellow at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston who was formerly chief surgical resident at UMMC. "A comprehensive literature review reveals this to be the first known case of these injuries resulting from the ingestion of liquid nitrogen."

Bankey was delighted at how quickly Mazur recovered. "Several weeks later, when we looked at the area of injury to the stomach, it was amazing to see how well it had healed," he says.

Mazur returned to WPI in March to complete his degree requirements and graduated with his class in May. He is now enrolled in a master's program in physics at the University of Chicago, happy to be alive and putting the experience far behind him.

"Physicians always say they learn a lot from their patients," says Bankey. "Michael's horrific chemical accident taught us once again that in trauma and emergency surgery, it's best to expect the unexpected."

-Bonnie Gelbwasser

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Last modified: Tue Jun 8 11:29:35 EDT 1999