Bella Mancillas is standing on her head.
For an 8-year-old to be exuberantly goofing off, performing cartwheels and splits while grownups are talking, is nothing out of the ordinary. But as her mother, Katie Mancillas, is explaining, in Bella’s case, it’s almost miraculous.
Six years ago, when Bella was 2, she was rushed to the hospital because she was vomiting so uncontrollably that she inhaled fluid into her lungs, blocking her airways. Not long after she arrived, Bella stopped breathing and briefly flatlined. “Oh, my God, I think Bella’s gonna die,” Katie remembers telling her sister.
The cause of Bella’s near-death experience wasn’t a nasty stomach virus or a toxic pesticide. According to Katie, it was a squishy, multicolored packet that’s an increasingly common presence in American homes: a Tide Pod.
Katie Mancillas often did the laundry for her large family in the suburbs of San Diego, lugging loads to the nearby laundromat. When she first saw the pods—easily portable packets of concentrated detergent, then new to the market—she thought they’d be a useful convenience.
On Nov. 17, 2012, Katie brought home her first case of Tide Pods, from Costco, and placed them on the kitchen counter. Katie recalls that the case was clear plastic, with a button on top that opened the lid when pushed. She was unloading her groceries, she says, when she turned around to see that Bella had opened the case and was about to put a pod in her mouth. She bit into it before Katie could snatch it away. “It literally did look like candy. And I honestly think that that’s what she thought it was,” says Katie.
Katie immediately called poison control and was told to force Bella to drink 32 ounces of water and wait 30 minutes to see if she started vomiting bubbles. “At 27 minutes, she started projectile vomiting,” Katie recalls. “It was just bubbles, like from a bubble machine.”
They raced to the hospital. When they arrived, Katie saw Bella turn blue as medical staff struggled to steer a breathing tube through the bubbles in her throat. After Bella was intubated, they transferred her to a children’s hospital, where she was placed into a medically induced coma so that they could try to suction the detergent out of her lungs.
As Katie retells the story, Bella ends her impromptu gymnastics routine and nestles into her mother’s side on the couch. Her otherwise bright demeanor—illustrated by the glitter that covers her T-shirt, backpack, and notebook—turns somber.
After two weeks of Katie not knowing whether her daughter would pull through, Bella started breathing on her own again. But she had serious challenges ahead. She had to relearn how to walk and talk. She got sick often after the episode, which her doctor surmised was because of the lung injuries she had sustained. The most serious effects have been on her eyes. Bella has a type of strabismus in which the eyes are misaligned vertically; her doctors attribute it to oxygen deprivation during the incident. She has struggled to read and write properly, and she’s had two eye surgeries, with a possible third to come.
“It’s hard,” says Bella, who in this moment sounds more like a jaded adult than a carefree kid. “But you just kind of have to fight through it.”