Image: Lori and Jacob Gutierrez
Steve Campbell  /  for msnbc.com
Lori Gutierrez of Houston holds her 10-month-old son, Jacob, who took a scary trip to the emergency room after a heavy ceramic stocking holder fell on his head. At least 20 young children were hurt by the weighted hangers last year, part of a range injuries linked to holiday decorating.Gutierrez glued the holder back together, but she's keeping it out of the reach of her kids.
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 12/7/2009 8:35:15 AM ET 2009-12-07T13:35:15

Lori Gutierrez had just finished putting up this year's Christmas tree and trimmings when holiday decorating took a sudden turn toward holiday disaster.

The Houston mother was out of the room Nov. 27 when her 3-year-old son, Christopher, decided to investigate the new row of stockings hanging from the mantel. But she came rushing back at the sound of breaking ceramic and the cries of her 10-month-old son, Jacob, who’d been hit in the head with the heavy stocking holder his brother had pulled down.

“It was pretty scary,” said Gutierrez, 27. “He had a little knot on the head.”

Even scarier, Jacob began vomiting and couldn’t stop, raising fears about a concussion and requiring a late-night visit to the local emergency room. Jacob turned out to be fine, much better than his mother, who promptly packed up the stocking hangers — including two penguins, a Christmas tree, a snowman and a Santa — and vowed not to use them again.

“I was literally sick to my stomach with worry,” she said.

Gutierrez’ worry likely will be shared by many, if this season is anything like yuletides past.  Falls, fires, cuts and concussions are among the holiday decorating mishaps that send thousands of people to the nation’s emergency rooms from Halloween into the new year, government records show.

Less common but more embarrassing are accidents involving staple guns, plastic Christmas trees and, in at least one case, an oil-filled Hanukkah menorah that caught a couch on fire and sent a man to the hospital with smoke inhalation.

Nearly 13,000 people treated in ERs
Last year between Oct. 31 and Jan. 31, there were 469 reports of holiday decorating-related injuries and investigations recorded by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission. Extrapolated to the larger population, some 13,000 people are treated in ERs each year in the U.S. for injuries caused by festive décor, according to agency estimates.

Amid the expected seasonal accidents, however, there also was evidence of a new injury trend caused by weighted stocking hangers, which were first popularized several years ago by retailers such as Pottery Barn and Target.

At least 20 young children were hurt by the heavy stocking hangers last year, the reports showed. They included a 2-year-old Los Angeles boy who pulled a heavy reindeer-shaped stocking holder onto his head on Dec. 10, causing a deep puncture wound between his eyes. A 4-year-old girl’s toe was crushed when a stocking holder fell on it on Dec. 5. 

CPSC officials have not issued any formal warnings or recalls about the heavy stocking hangers. Sarah Bakken, a spokeswoman for Target, said the company had received no complaints about the holders this year and couldn’t provide information about previous years. Pottery Barn representatives didn't return msnbc.com requests for comment.

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But CPSC spokeswoman Nikki Fleming urged parents to use caution.

“We are concerned,” she said. “The recommendation from the commission would be not to use those products with young children in the home.”

By far the largest numbers of holiday injuries reported from a national sample of 100 hospitals are cuts and bruises, strains and sprains, often caused by falls from ladders or other tall objects. There were 162 reports of decorating injuries caused by falls last year, including at least 52 spills from ladders, according to the CPSC records.

About 6,000 such decorating-relating tumbles happen in holiday season, according to estimates bythe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s an experience that’s already been repeated this year by Mike Smith, a 54-year-old Kelso, Wash., man who was preparing to hang Christmas lights over Thanksgiving break when the leg broke on the wooden folding ladder he was using.  He knows he’s lucky to have escaped with cuts, a pulled muscle and a tweaked shoulder, probably a torn rotator cuff.

“Stupid Christmas lights,” Smith said. “Thank goodness for Percocet.”

Accidents injure bodies, pride
Some holiday accidents are both ignoble and painful. On Dec. 3, 2008, a 36-year-old woman fell face-first into a plastic tree and scratched a cornea. On Dec. 12, 2008, a 40-year-old woman tripped over her dog while decorating her Christmas tree and fractured her shinbone. 

That same day, a 45-year-old man was hanging Christmas lights using a staple gun and stapled through his third finger on his left hand, an accident that required removal of the finger, the report said.

Although all of the injuries are accidental, many could be avoided with a little preparation and extra caution, emergency room doctors said. Every year, Dr. Ryan Stanton, a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, treats at least a couple of injuries caused by so-called “wrap rage,” frustration sparked by people trying to open securely wrapped packages.

“I recommend using something a little bit smaller and a little bit safer than the biggest butcher knife you can find,” said Stanton, who is medical director at the University of Kentucky Good Samaritan Hospital in Lexington.

That’s likely good advice, judging by a poll of Pennsylvania adults that showed about 17 percent said they’d been injured or knew someone who was hurt opening packaged gifts during past seasons.

Even the experts aren't immune from holiday hazards, however. Dr. Sandra Schneider, a professor of emergency medicine at New York's Strong Memorial Hospital, had to patch up a 3-inch cut on the head of her 60-year-old husband on Christmas Eve a few years ago when he fell from a ladder while trying to position an angel atop a 16-foot Christmas tree.

"He was old enough to break — and old enough to know better," said Schneider, the ACEP's president-elect.

Image: injured child
family photo
Shannon Wilson's, 18-month-old son, Baylor, of St. Augustine, Fla., was hurt Nov. 30 when a heavy stocking holder fell on his forehead.

‘I felt worse than he did’
Ultimately, it's up to families to scrutinize holiday decorations for possible hazards, especially dangers to babies and young children. Shannon Wilson, a 33-year-old mother from St. Augustine, Fla., wished she’d thought more carefully about the heavy, star-shaped metal stocking holder she placed on her mantel a week ago.

Within an hour of her hanging the stockings, Wilson's 18-month-old son, Baylor, had pulled the holder off the mantel. “It just nailed him, right on his forehead, right between the eyes,” she said.

Fortunately for the toddler — and his mom — Wilson’s husband is a plastic surgeon who was able to patch up the wound at home with surgical glue.

“I felt pretty bad about it,” said Wilson. “I felt worse about it than he did.”

Minor accidents like Baylor’s become part of family holiday lore. But for some victims of holiday injuries, the results can be devastating.

Jacob Rodriguez, 53, of Grapevine, Texas, was hanging Christmas lights in 2006 when he toppled 10 feet backwards off a ladder, landing atop a car. The fall left the IT worker with a spinal cord injury, paralyzed from the waist down.

Three years later, he uses a wheelchair and has to rely on family or hired help for almost every household chore, including putting up holiday lights. But Rodriguez pays a crew to decorate his house because he says the accident has done nothing to dim his holiday spirit.

"Oh, no, not at all," he says. "I was never angry because accidents happen."

Still, when the workers arrive, Rodriguez insists that they follow the rules for decorating safely.

"Make sure you don't come alone," he tells them. "Always remember to use the buddy the system."

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