August 13th, 2010
06:52 PM ET

Plant sprouts in man's lung

How can a pea grow in a man’s lung? That's been a water cooler topic for the better part of this week.  It happened to 75-year-old Ron Sveden,  who had a half-inch-long sprout removed from his lung, which was first reported by a 20-year-old news intern at the Cape Cod Times on August 8.

The story was picked up by TV stations, newspapers and websites around the world.

Sveden was very sick when he was hospitalized on Memorial Day – he was having more difficulty breathing than he usually does with his emphysema.

Sveden was expecting to learn he had lung cancer.  Instead, he tells a Boston television station: “I was told that I had a pea seed in my lung that had split and had sprouted.”

Dr. Jeff Spillane removed the obstruction.  He tells CNN at first he couldn't see that a pea had been lodged in the lung because there was so much infected, swollen tissue around it.  "His whole lobe was collapsed and there was pus behind...it was entrapped in what we call granulation tissue."  But once removed, he says it looked like a pea or a bean. “It had a shoot coming out."

Spillane,  a thoracic surgeon at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, Massachusetts,  doesn’t know how long the seed was in Sveden’s lung, but he believes it stayed in the airway because Sveden’s existing lung disease didn’t allow him to breathe very well and he couldn't cough it out.

“Most of the time I'm dealing with pretty devastating illness,” Spillane says.  But this case is different. “He really did get a very good outcome.”

As for the likelihood of something sprouting inside the body, experts say it’s not impossible.  Walter Reeves, a horticulturist, author and radio host in Atlanta, Georgia, says it’s conceivable if a seed gets lodged in a lung.

“Isn't that what happens when a seed is underground and gets moisture and warmth?  They [seeds] don't need light” he adds, at least not for the first two or three days.

Reeves doesn’t have more details about Sveden’s situation than what’s been reported in the news media, but he points out that this could  happen only with raw peas or beans or peanuts.  Cooked peas or other legumes cannot germinate or sprout.  Reeves says a raw peanut could easily sprout, as could dried peas, after soaking in water. “Those are quite capable of germinating.”

Spillane says children, in particular, are known to have a peanuts go down the wrong way and get lodged in the lung, which is a very serious problem.  “Kids have died from that stuff,” he says.

Spillane is a little surprised at all the attention this story had received.  He says removing objects from patients’ lungs happens frequently.  “A week later [after Sveden’s surgery], I pulled a tooth out [of another patient]."

Dr. Steve Georas, a pulmonologist in Rochester, New York, agrees.  He says people inhale things into their lungs frequently, probably because the trachea and the esophagus are so close to each other.  “We had a similar case at the University of Rochester where I practice.  A patient had a pea wedged in his bronchus – it didn't turn into a plant."

Spillane says he went into surgery to help people and to "pull the thorn out of the lion's paw. " Sveden’s sprouting pea, the surgeon says, “was the ultimate thorn in a lion's paw, I guess.”

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