Mum of boy who had surgery to remove magnets, screws and yarn from his stomach wants to raise awareness of pica

A veterinary technician who felt “guilty” and “embarrassed” when her son had to undergo emergency surgery to remove magnets, metal screws, and yarn from his stomach wants to initiate more open dialogue about pica to help others who may have the condition.

Shannon Litchfield, 48, who lives in Albany, Oregon, USA, believes her son, Cameron, 11, has pica – an eating disorder where a person compulsively swallows non-food items.

Although Cameron has not been formally diagnosed, Shannon said he has always chewed on things, such as the collar of his shirt, straws, crayons, pencils, rubber and pieces of Lego.

“It’s always been a part of Cameron. We’ve always been dealing with it,” she said.

Shannon Litchfield wants to raise awareness of pica.
Shannon Litchfield with her son Cameron (Collect/PA Real Life)

Shannon and her husband Jason, 46, who works at Wells Fargo Bank, thought the chewing was “normal”, as children are “curious” and often put objects in their mouths.

The couple later noticed screws disappearing from around the house and magnets being removed from the shower curtain, but since Cameron was young and enjoyed deconstructing things, they “didn’t really think too much about it”.

But earlier this year, Cameron, who is an active, creative and “happy young man”, started to lose weight – 10lb in total – and experience severe stomach pain, meaning he had to be rushed to hospital.

Shannon Litchfield wants to raise awareness of pica.
Cameron Litchfield had surgery on April 4 2022 (Collect/PA Real Life)

“He was so sick that we took him to the emergency room and they took the X-ray,” Shannon said.

“There were magnets, little circular magnets and little rectangular magnets, and then there were a bunch of tiny little screws (in his stomach).”

Shannon Litchfield wants to raise awareness of pica.
An X-ray showing the metal screws and magnets in Cameron’s stomach (Collect/PA Real Life)

She continued: “When they went to do the endoscopy (a procedure to look inside the body), they found what they thought was rope, but we later discovered that it was yarn.

“The yarn was in his stomach but was exiting through the pyloric outflow and creating an ulcer.

“The magnets had also eroded through his stomach and he had a hole in his stomach that had adhered to part of his colon, so they immediately took the scope out and took him into emergency surgery.”

Shannon Litchfield wants to raise awareness of pica.
Cameron Litchfield at Randall Children’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon, USA (Collect/PA Real Life)

Cameron spent a week at Randall Children’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon, after the surgery on April 4 2022, and he could “barely move” in the days that followed.

Shannon, who works at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at Oregon State University, explained that he had a tube in his nose, draining fluid from his stomach, and he could not eat food for four days.

And while Cameron has since recovered and is a “normal kid again”, Shannon said he “could have died”.

She said she felt “so much shame as a mum and as a person” and wishes she had advocated for him more prior to his surgery.

She said: “I felt guilty. I felt like all the warning signs were there and we should have done something sooner.

“I felt like I had failed him.”

Shannon Litchfield wants to raise awareness of pica.
Cameron Litchfield enjoying the outdoors (Collect/PA Real Life)

According to the charity The Challenging Behaviour Foundation, pica refers to eating objects that are inedible, such as stones, coins, shampoo, clothing and cigarette butts.

Children and adults may eat one specific inedible object, or lots of different ones, but the exact cause of the condition is unknown.

While some objects pass through the body without harm, pica can potentially be life-threatening.

Shannon Litchfield wants to raise awareness of pica.
Cameron Litchfield received gifts from his grandma while in hospital (Collect/PA Real Life)

Shannon said she has taken Cameron to various doctors, but she feels “nobody believes in pica”.

She feels there is a lack of public awareness about the condition, and this has left her feeling “helpless and hopeless” at times, despite receiving support from loved ones.

In their search for solutions, she and Jason have made many adjustments at home, including having more open discussions with Cameron, so that he does not keep secrets from them.

One of their biggest challenges is “trust”, as he has concealed things from them before.

Shannon Litchfield wants to raise awareness of pica.
Cameron Litchfield enjoying some food after his surgery (Collect/PA Real Life)

On one occasion, the couple noticed the rubber handles on their mixing bowls had been chewed, and Cameron “blamed that on the dogs”.

But Shannon explained that he does not even realise he is chewing on things, as he often “zones out”.

“It’s hard when he is curious and he wants to learn and do things, and you want to let him do that and give him some independence, but you feel like you have to watch everything he does,” she explained.

“It’s really hard to let him be a kid and trust him. I think the trust is the biggest thing and trying to give him back a little bit of that trust is making a huge difference in our dynamic at home.”

The couple have found that chewing sugar-free gum has also helped Cameron significantly, but their quest for answers remains ongoing.

Shannon Litchfield wants to raise awareness of pica.
Shannon Litchfield described her son Cameron as a “happy young man” (Collect/PA Real Life)

Shannon said: “Every day is a new day, and you just try to continue to do the best.

“I feel like we’ve seen the improvements with providing him with gum so he’s got something else to chew on if it’s an oral fixation.

“It’s a really difficult balance and I honestly don’t know (what to do), other than to take every day as a new day and be his advocate – that’s the best thing I can do to keep an eye on him and make sure that I have a good, open relationship with him and obviously his father as well.”

She added: “I don’t feel like there’s enough (information) out there, so if I can help somebody, that would be amazing.”