Okay, I admit that from time to time I have embellished the anecdotes that I include in these letters. Sometimes, I feel I need to make sure that you are paying attention. But this time, I am relating this story in its true, unvarnished state.
Two mature women with whom I am acquainted (No, one was not my wife!) had just finished their habitual Saturday morning walk through a wooded upper middle class neighborhood here in town. It was nine o’clock in the morning and the sun was shining. Suddenly, a mangy-looking fox trotted out of the woods and down the road toward them. Aware that from time to time local raccoons, skunks, and foxes have tested positive for rabies, these women began to run and flagged down the first car they saw, and without a word hopped in the back seat.
The surprised occupants of the vehicle were two mature men. You might call them strangers, but here in Maine, we don’t have any strangers. We have tourists. If a fellow Mainer doesn’t know you, he probably knows two people with whom you are acquainted.
As the women began to breathlessly explain their actions, one of the women felt a searing pain in her right thigh and assumed she had torn a muscle as she sprinted away from the fox. Within a few hundred yards, the car began to fill with smoke. Believing that the vehicle was on fire, all four occupants tumbled out into the street like four carnival clowns.
It quickly became clear that the cause of the smoke and the searing pain was that the woman’s pants were on fire. Throwing all caution and modesty to the wind, she quickly shed her pants in the middle of the road and in full view of these men, with whom it turns out she does share several acquaintances.
The source of the fire was the woman’s cell phone. The resulting injury was a palm-size, painful, deep, second-degree burn of her anterior thigh. In a quick Internet search, you will discover several very similar stories – minus the fox and the strangers. Some of the victims were children.
It turns out some cell phones have a tendency to spontaneously explode and/or catch fire. There seems to be no common factor in the events, although some of the ultrathin and flexible cell phones may be more prone to conflagration. However, the victim in our scenario has a storied past with cell phones. She has dropped them in the toilet at least once (history is a little unclear here on the exact number). On another occasion, she placed one in the sink of a public restroom, we can assume to prevent a second or third toilet submersion. As she approached the sink to retrieve it, the clever water-saving faucet – sensing her presence – turned itself on. But in the fox and fire incident, she denies any previous submersions or unusual events with this particular phone. A lawyer is now involved.
So while you and I as pediatricians may be concerned about the relationship between cell phones and health of our patients primarily because cell phones can be a dangerous distraction for young drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, I share this anecdote to make you aware of another of their health hazards. You also may want to reconsider where you carry your cell phone.
I am not worried myself. I have a little flip phone for which I pay $100 for 500 minutes of usage a year, way more than I need or use. It couldn’t be considered a smartphone as its only noteworthy skill is taking pictures of the inside of my pants pocket. I suspect that its battery must be so small and impotent that even if it decides to self-immolate, I doubt I will notice. However, I do worry about scraggly-looking foxes meandering through my neighborhood.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “Coping with a Picky Eater.” Email him at email@example.com.