As a builder and retained firefighter on the Lizard Peninsula, Adam Martin was fighting fit – until a piece of popcorn stuck in a tooth left him needing open heart surgery.

His wife Helen has now shared the story in the hope of making people aware of just how serious it can be to ignore toothache, after it almost cost him his life.

Coverack resident and St Keverne fireman Adam, who spent his 41st birthday in hospital while he recovered, had to have two major surgeries in one week, the second of which was open heart surgery to replace his aortic valve, repair his mitral valve and patch up an abscess.

It was after he developed infective endocarditis - an infection of the membrane that lines the inside of the chambers of the heart – which according to his surgeon left his aortic valve “flapping like a stunned octopus”.

Falmouth Packet:

Adam giving a bedtime story to son George via FaceTime, while in hospital

Just a few weeks earlier the father-of-three had got a small piece of popcorn husk stuck in his gums. It resulted in toothache for a few days, but he ignored it and it went away.

Around the same time he developed what appeared to be a cold, which then turned into what was assumed to be flu and on October 7 he went to his GP.

A mild heart murmur was found, so he was sent for blood tests and x-rays, which came back showing nothing more significant than slightly raised inflammation markers.

A few days later he was still experiencing flu-like symptoms and had developed a blood blister on his toe – which was later found out to be a Janeway lesion, an external indication of infective endocarditis – and a splintered capillary on his thumbnail.

This was enough to send him to the same-day medical assessment unit, where the family were told it was endocarditis and he was looking at six weeks in hospital on IV antibiotics.

That night he got cramp in his leg - which turned out to be an infected clot, wedged in his femoral artery.

What was meant to be two to three hours of surgery ended up taking nearer five hours, as surgeons had to remove a whole section of artery because it was breaking up faster than it could be stitched.

This was followed by three days of waiting for a bed and surgery slot in Derriford or St Bartholomew’s in London. At this point his infection levels were at 340, the normal being between zero and five.

He finally got a bed at Derriford, with surgery the following morning, as the damage was so bad the consultant decided it couldn’t wait.

Thankfully, following surgery Adam made quick progress at recovering and was back at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro a week later, before returning home to Coverack a few weeks after that.

Falmouth Packet:

Adam on his 41st birthday, spent at Derriford Hospital

Helen said: “Any sign of toothache, bleeding gums, abscess - get it checked out!

“It is also well worth noting the date in case you get ‘flu like symptoms’. If Adam’s infection was caught earlier it could have been treated with antibiotics.

“Your gums are a bacterial highway to your heart.”

She praised the care from all the NHS staff they encountered, making special mention of a nurse called Scott at Treliske, who pushed hard for a doctor to see Adam’s leg.

“Without him he could have lost it,” Helen said.

“The symptom that seemed to get things moving was the splinter capillary. He only had one but if we didn’t go to same-day medical assessment on that Friday I’m sure he wouldn’t be here now.

“People assumed there was chest pain, but there wasn’t really.”

Helen said she was moved to share the story now after a friend of her mum said she had toothache over Christmas but had not done anything about it, and she realised how widespread it was to put off going to the dentist.

She praised the support of the local community that had rallied behind the family.

The family has also been supported by The Fire Fighters Charity benevolent fund, which has been helping out until Adam is fit enough to go back to work.

  • Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service is currently part of a crisp packet recycling scheme, raising funds for the The Fire Fighters Charity benevolent fund. Flat crisp packets can be dropped into almost all Cornish fire stations.