After Child's Rare Metal Straw Accident, Experts Share Zero-Waste Alternatives

The 4-year-old is recovering and off to school this week. Doctors say injuries like his are rare.

Stainless steel straws for reusable and reduce the use of plastic straw.
Photo: Getty

One second, Charlie DeFraia was sipping a yogurt drink through a metal straw on the porch ledge. The next, he lost his balance and fell. Any parent knows tumbles can happen, but this fall was the first in a chain reaction of events that turned a leisurely day outside into a nightmare.

The impact of the fall forced the metal straw through Charlie's tongue and into his throat. It punctured the right carotid artery, which supplies blood and oxygen to the brain. The injury stopped the blood from flowing to the brain and caused blood to gush from his mouth.

Charlie's 8-year-old sister, Madison, screamed for help. His father, an internal medicine doctor, thought he bit his tongue at first but soon realized it was an emergency.

"It was evident that he was really losing a serious amount of blood, and he actually stopped breathing on me a couple times," Dr. Charles DeFraia, 38, told TODAY. "I had to protect his airway, and that's really all I could do at that point."

The family called 911, and the ambulance got Charlie from his Center Moriches home to Stony Brook University Hospital in 13 minutes. Typically, the nearly 30-mile trip takes about 45 minutes or more. But the paramedics designated Charlie's situation pediatric code T, the highest level of trauma activation, enabling police to shut down roadways.

The doctors who treated Charlie told TODAY they quickly realized it was more than a tongue laceration.

"He had really no measurable blood pressure," said Dr. Richard Scriven, chief of pediatric trauma at Stony Brook Trauma Center. "He essentially had lost nearly all his blood."

The doctors asked the parents if anything could have harmed Charlie's throat area, and a light went off—it must have been the straw. Charlie's mother had gotten metal straws after seeing the damage plastic straws could do to sea turtles.

Amanda Stovall, an Illinois-based pediatrician who did not treat Charlie, says this story should not alarm parents—injuries like this one are rare.

"Charlie's story is understandably a scary one, a horrible accident, but should not be a source of panic for parents," Dr. Stovall says. "Charlie is alive and well due to his parents' quick recognition of the severity of the problem and action to get him the help he needed."

Though children can get injured on nearly anything, Charlie isn't the first person to make headlines for an incident involving a metal straw. In 2016, Starbucks recalled 2.5 million straws because children were cutting their mouths when drinking from them. A British woman died after a metal straw pierced her left eye during a fall in 2019.

The doctors who treated Charlie recommend steering clear of metal straws, and Betty Choi, M.D., a California-based pediatrician, agrees.

Other zero-waste options Dr. Choi suggests are:

  • Small, silicone, or durable glass open cups. Bonus: "They are great for building coordination, motor skills, and autonomy," Choi says, adding infants and toddlers can start using them as soon as they begin learning to self-feed.
  • Older children can use small, reusable water bottles, a particularly versatile option for on-the-go families.
  • Reusable silicone straws, particularly if the child is prone to spilling or has motor coordination challenges.

Dr. Stovall says caregivers can bring these cups to restaurants and fill them with a child's drink order if they want to avoid metal straws.

There's good news for Charlie: The doctors at Stony Brook University Hospital were able to use gauze to stop the bleeding. He received blood transfusions, and saved the blood vessel and sealed the hole with a catheter.

Charlie spent one week in a medically-induced coma but has recovered. He can now move around almost as he used to, save for some weakness in his left hand. He starts kindergarten on September 7.

As for the straws? Crystal will be looking for other ways to reduce plastic waste.

"They've been in the garbage since the day after the accident," Crystal DeFraia told TODAY.

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