BOSTON - The doctor confirmed the good news for Ron Sveden once the mass in his left lung came back from the lab: He didn't have cancer. He had a pea sprouting inside his chest.
"A couple days in a dark, wet environment, I'd sprout too," Dr. Jeff Spillane said Thursday. "It definitely had a sprout."
It was a long way from the diagnosis Sveden, 75, had feared when he arrived at Cape Cod Hospital on Memorial Day weekend.
The former teacher, who also had spent years running a retail fish market and smokehouse, had seen his already-frail health begin to falter further in prior months. He already knew he had emphysema but lately was having bad coughing spells.
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"Everything seemed to be going downhill," said Sveden, of Brewster. "I seemed to be tired a lot more. I didn't want to do too much. My appetite was diminishing."
The news sounded even more dire when he was told at the hospital that he was dehydrated and suffering from pneumonia. Then came X-rays showing a small but ominous dark spot — then biopsies that came up negative for lung cancer.His doctors decided their only option was to go inside and see for themselves.
"There was a lot of inflammation there and I thought, OK, there's a tumor at the bottom of this," said Spillane, who went in with a scope.
But the more Spillane probed at the encrusted mass, the clearer it became that it was no tumor.
"It was pretty grungy, but it looked like a pea," Spillane said. "I sent it to the pathologist. They said it was a vegetable."
It took less than half an hour to clear away the sprout, drain some of the fluid that had built up around it, and help restore the lung's capacity.
After his surgery in June, Sveden spent three weeks in the hospital and a week in rehab. He said he feels fine now and is still amazed by that something as small as a pea could create such a big health headache.
Sveden's pulmonologist, Dr. Scott Slater, who first determined that there was something wrong and called in Spillane, said it's not unusual for a patient to accidentally inhale a small object.
"The typical story would be maybe someone's at a picnic and someone tells a joke and they laugh and they choke on something and then, voila, we find foreign bodies in the airways," he said. "But it's a little unusual to have aspirated on something and not know it."
It's not the first story about a seed sprouting in a lung, though experts declared that report implausible.
In 2009, a Russian surgeon said he found a tiny fir tree in someone's lung and suggested the patient could have inhaled a seed. Experts said at the time that a fir seed could not germinate in the lung because it needs sunlight.
The pea that Spillane removed from Sveden's lungs had apparently germinated. An expert conceded it was not out of the question for growth to continue inside his chest — but only if the pea wasn't pasteurized.
"Any pea that didn't go through that process, I suppose it could be possible," said David Fiske, a horticulturist and gardens curator at the Massachusetts Horicultural Society.
In Sveden's case, its presence caused a massive inflammation and the encrusted mass in his airways. But it's better than the alternative, doctors said.
"It's given him a whole new lease on life," Slater said. "He went from someone who probably had advanced lung cancer to someone that's no sicker than someone else his age."