Location: Union, Maine
Date: June 16, 1993


June 16, 1993, was a beautiful day in Union, Maine. It was sunny and hot, which suited the students at Union Elementary School just fine, since this was their annual school-wide Field Day. Special activities were planned throughout the day for the students and teachers. Right after recess, Charlyn Dickens, a teacher with over sixteen years experience, opened her classroom door and ushered her excited students back into her classroom. As most students flopped into their seats and began to fan themselves, nine-year-old Paul Benner brought his new gift--a canteen--over to the faucet and filled it with cold, clear water. He went back to his table, where he offered a drink to his tablemates: Jon Strout took a big swallow, then passed the canteen to their friend, Carlton. Carlton also took a swig, then handed the canteen back to Paul. Paul leaned his head back and took a great big gulp. When he tilted his head back down, however, the canteen didn't come away from his mouth. Jon remembers trying to make sense of Paul's mumbled words, and thinking that he was joking.

When it was clear to Jon that Paul really couldn't remove the canteen from his mouth, Jon called to Ms. Dickens, announcing that Paul had "the canteen stuck on his tongue." Her reaction was one of amazement and disbelief. As the class laughed, she made her way over to Paul's table, where she tried to gently yank the canteen off his tongue. As she twisted it just a bit, she could feel the suction in it was holding it fast to his tongue. She could see that the threads on the mouth of the canteen were stuck to his tongue. When the canteen didn't easily come away, she decided that she needed help.

Asking her class to stay quiet and behave, Ms. Dickens left the room and with Paul. Telling him to stay calm, she flagged down a passing aide in the hallway. The aide walked with Paul and Ms. Dickens down to the gymnasium where the unofficial medic-gym teacher, Mr. Lufkin, was supervising other Field Day activities. He was not a trained professional, but he knew the basic points to cover an emergency situation. Although the sight of Paul with a canteen stuck to his tongue was a comical one, he kept his composure and did not laugh. His first priority was to make sure that Paul could breathe; he could. Mr. Lufkin could see that he was starting to worry, so he reassured him and promised him that they'd get the canteen off his tongue.

Mr. Lufkin filled a sink in his office with ice. His plan was to have Paul stand over it with the canteen in the ice. He thought this would cool off the canteen and eventually cool off Paul's tongue. This would decrease any swelling in the tongue, and allow the canteen to slip off. Ms. Dickens, the aide, and Mr. Lufkin huddled around Paul, rubbing his back and taking turns trying to pull at the canteen. When they could see that the ice was having no effect, they decided to call 911.

Their call was received by the Maine State Police Department. When the dispatcher heard that help was needed to remove a canteen from a boy's tongue he chuckled and asked the caller to repeat himself. He wanted to make sure he completely understood this crazy call! An alarm was then sent out to the Union Ambulance Corps. When EMT Pat McCallister heard the call, she was at home with her husband, Mike. After they listened to the dispatcher's message, they looked at each other and burst out laughing. Pat had been called to some strange emergencies, but this seemed the funniest of all!

When Pat and her partner arrived on the scene, she put on surgical gloves and used her fingers to try and back Paul's tongue out of the neck of the canteen. Her work had no effort, and she and her partner wondered what they should try next. In the meantime, Mike pulled up to the school in his van. He was a volunteer EMT and an electrician; he thought some of his equipment might come in handy.

At the same moment, Paul's mother, Beth Benner, had heard of his plight, and came rushing to the school. The adults thought the situation was funny, but knew that it was also very serious. They worked together to keep Paul calm and to think of different ways to try and get his tongue free. Mike suggested drilling a hole in the front of the canteen, at the point farthest away from Paul's tongue, to try and relieve some of the pressure in the canteen. He thought that, if the canteen's vacuum was broken, Paul's tongue might just slip off the neck.

With Beth's approval, Mike began to very carefully drill a hole through the top of the canteen. When he was done, the adults again tried to tug it off Paul's tongue. When this didn't work, Mike tried blowing into the hole he had made, hoping this would loosen the threads' grip on Paul's tongue. Again, Pat used her fingers to try and back it out of the neck. She and her partner knew that because of various procedures they had tried, it was beginning to swell. They began to be concerned that the canteen might work itself down onto the base of Paul's tongue, where it could obstruct his airway. They decided that they should get him to the hospital as quickly as possible, so they called for an ambulance.

As they loaded Paul into the ambulance, students from Ms. Dickens' class, as well as others from the school, watched from the windows. Jon remembers thinking that, at the hospital, doctors might need to cut off Paul's tongue! So, while the sight of him with the canteen stuck to his face was funny, the students also knew that this was a serious situation. They were glad to know that he was being taken care of by professionals, and they hoped that he would be back in school very soon.

At the Penobscot Bay Medical Center, Emergency Room Nurse Charlotte Fowlie prepared an examining room for Paul's arrival. She remembers thinking that she had plenty of experience with children sticking various objects in their ears and noses, but she never had to help someone with a stuck tongue before! When Paul got to the hospital, she began by applying lubricant to his tongue. She hoped that it would slip right out of the neck. When this didn't work, she and the surgeon on duty, Dr. Olaff Anderson, knew that their only choice was to cut the canteen off. Dr. Anderson thought to himself that he could probably give it a great big yank and pull it off Paul's tongue, but he thought that Beth would probably faint at the sight!

After Paul was given a mild sedative, Dr. Anderson began snipping away at the canteen, using as his starting place the hole that Mike McCallister had made. The canteen had many metal seams, however, which made Dr. Anderson's progress very slow. The delicate surgical instruments at his disposal, designed to work on a human body, weren't sturdy enough to cut through the metal canteen. So he called upon the engineering department at the hospital--a department with heavy-duty equipment. Using a pair of their special shears, he was able to move faster. He snipped in a straight line, right toward the mouth of the canteen--right toward Paul's tongue! As the shears got closer to his mouth, Beth told him to take deep breaths and keep his eyes closed, so that he wouldn't have to watch. Finally, Dr. Anderson reached the neck with the shears and made a final cut. The body came away in his hands, leaving just a metal ring around Paul's tongue. Moving very carefully and slowly, he made one more cut--the one that freed Paul's tongue from the metal cylinder!

Everyone cheered and Paul began to smile. Dr. Anderson looked his tongue over carefully. It was black, blue, and swollen, but Dr. Anderson could not see any other damage. Paul was given a quick checkup, and a Popsicle, and then released. He was under orders to eat Popsicles, as the icy cold would relieve the swelling of his tongue!

Paul was able to return to school the next day, where he was greeted as a hero. He has vowed never to buy another canteen because you never know what might happen. Beth is glad that he is safe and sound, and knows that he's learned his lesson--never stick your tongue where it doesn't belong!