Trista Hamsmith suffered the unimaginable when her 18-month-old daughter Reese died late last year after accidentally swallowing a button battery — the kind that’s found in many home devices and toys.
And now, especially as Mother’s Day approaches, she’s doing everything in her power to prevent a similar tragedy from ever occurring again.
“This did not have to happen,” said Hamsmith, who is starting a non-profit aimed at raising awareness about the batteries’ dangers and is advocating for better safety legislation. “It was placed on my heart very early that I want to see changes in the law so no other family has to go through this.”
At first, Reese just seemed to have a bad cold. She had become congested and wheezy at the end of October, and on Halloween, Hamsmith brought the toddler to the pediatrician, who suspected croup and gave Reese a steroid. Come back in if she gets worse, the doctor said.
Hamsmith would later come to find out that croup is a common misdiagnosis when a child has ingested a button battery. But the family didn’t suspect it until they realized the day after the doctor’s visit that one of the flat, round batteries was missing from a remote control in their Lubbock, Texas, home. Hamsmith worried that perhaps the dog had swallowed it, but when she searched online for symptoms of ingestion — wheezing, coughing, vomiting and more — she was no longer concerned about the puppy.
“I realized somebody in my house had some of these symptoms, and it wasn’t the dog,” Hamsmith said.
The family raced Reese to the hospital that Sunday, and within 30 minutes of getting in the car, an X-ray confirmed their fears: The battery was lodged near the top of Reese’s esophagus.
Reese underwent emergency surgery to remove the battery from her body, and the Hamsmiths brought her home after three days. Medical professionals explained that button batteries continue to burn tissue even after they are removed; as Poison Control explains, “an electrical current can form around the outside of the battery, generating hydroxide (an alkaline chemical) and causing a tissue burn.” Reese would need to be on a liquid diet until she returned to the doctor in about a month.
“We thought, ‘OK, we’ll have a hard road of no solid foods,’” Hamsmith said. “We’ll eat in the bathroom so we don’t have food in front of Reese. We’ll keep her on the liquids, we’ll get through this.”
But within just a few days, Reese seemed sicker. The Hamsmiths’ pediatrician checked with Reese’s surgeon, who ordered a CT scan because he was worried the battery created a hole.
“The surgeon was right: She had a fistula, a hole that had been created through her esophagus and the trachea,” Hamsmith said. “It essentially connected the two when they shouldn’t be connected, so food and air was getting where it doesn’t need to be.”
Surgeons gave Reese a “G-button,” or gastronomy tube, to directly provide her body with nutrition. “She came back sedated and on a ventilator, and that was the last time I saw my child like herself,” Hamsmith said.
The next few weeks were a whirlwind of ups and downs as doctors ultimately planned surgery to repair the fistula. One night, Reese had a respiratory code and switched hospitals. An extra scope was needed to make sure her tubes were in the right place. At the end of November, doctors were finally able to repair the fistula fully in a surgery that went better than expected.
Reese was even taken off the ventilator after healing from that surgery. But later that evening, after stepping away to grab food for the first time that day, Hamsmith was chilled to see the hallways empty. “How awful,” she thought. “Someone’s not doing well.”
“Right as I turned the corner, I realized everyone was in Reese’s room, and I heard, ‘Starting compressions!’” Hamsmith recounted. “I remember going in and yelling, ‘Baby, you’ve gotta fight!’ I remember going to my knees. I remember making anyone in the room that did not have their hands on my child to get on their knees and pray with me.”
The doctors got Reese back that day. She was put back on the ventilator and later underwent surgery to receive a tracheotomy. Just two days later, Reese’s vital signs crashed. This time the doctors’ interventions didn’t work.
“I bent my head to pray, and I thought, ‘we’ve done this before; we’ll do it again,’” Hamsmith said. “They worked on her for 30 or 40 minutes while I begged God not to take her. But she didn’t make it. After that, I got to hold her for the first time in 40 days. She was blue. She was gone.”
Reese, just 18 months old, died on Dec. 17, 2020. Her mother was beyond devastated. But she also knew she had to act.
What parents need to know
Hamsmith took solace in a religious message emblazoned on a little plaque in Reese’s hospital room: “He has a plan, and I have a purpose.”
And so eventually, Reese’s Purpose was born. The organization, which is in the process of becoming a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit, has multiple aims: change the law to mandate secure tool-required battery compartments for button batteries; encourage the industry to bring a safer battery to market; raise funds to support families of children injured by button batteries; and increase education of parents and medical professionals about the signs of button battery ingestion.
Reese’s Purpose also became the name of a Facebook group that Hamsmith had created in mid-November to update people on Reese’s status as she fought in the hospital. Hamsmith has additionally been busy launching a petition on Change.org that calls for a bill to establish national standards for consumer products that contain button batteries, as well as testifying before the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
In her CPSC testimony, Hamsmith noted that national records show 3,500 people swallow button batteries annually and that experts suspect that number is vastly underreporting how many people actually ingest them. For now, as she fights for legislation, Hamsmith said she is dedicating herself to educating parents about the hidden dangers of button batteries.
“It scares me to put a list on it, because they’re in more places than you might think,” Hamsmith said. “I am begging parents to be aware of how the devices in your home are powered. Take an hour to do a full sweep, and check every single product.”
If parents do find button batteries in their devices, they should make sure the batteries are secured if possible — either behind a closure that requires a screwdriver to open, or duct-taped for devices like remotes — and that the products are stored out of reach of children.
Poison Control notes button batteries may be found not only in remotes but also toys, games, flashing jewelry, singing greeting cards, thermometers, battery-powered tealight candles and many other items. Poison Control recommends immediately calling the 24-hour National Battery Ingestion Hotline at 800-498-8666 for guidance if someone swallows a battery.
“We should still have Reese,” Hamsmith said. “This has been a known issue for a while and we’re still seeing kids get injured or die. Now is the time: We need moms, dads, grandparents to help advocate for this change so when this issue does get to the Hill, we’re heard. This didn’t have to happen to Reese. It just didn’t.”