Nitro Mike, the student who drank liquid nitrogen

In one form or the other, this story has been circling the Internet since 1997. Do a Google search on liquid nitrogen ingestion, and you'll find the many incarnations of this urban legend, including lengthy discussions on its credibility.

Well... said story is not just an Urban Legend, but it's a true story, and I'm not proud to report that it happened at this great engineering school. To my defense, it wasn't me, it didn't happen in my department, and this school has been the inspiration of many brilliant minds with far greater newsworthy achievements**.

Several versions of this story report the most outrageous claims; one version even suggests that the student drank the liquid nitrogen in an attempt to get high. Now that makes a lot of sense. Following is the story distilled from the school's official press release1, and some other semi-official releases2, 3.

The WPI chapter of the Society of Physics Students had its annual ice- cream social at the beginning of the 1997 Academic Year. The unlucky student M. unfolds the details leading to the incident:
"As tradition dictates, we made our own ice cream, using liquid nitrogen as a refrigerant and aerator. We spilled a little of the nitrogen onto a table and watched tiny little drops of it dance around." Someone asked, "Why does it do that?" M. explained that the nitrogen evaporated when it came in contact with the table, which provided a cushion of air for the drop to sit on, and thermally insulated it to minimize further evaporation- enabling it to do its little dance without scarring the table, boiling away or being "smeared" out. "It's this principle," he said, "that makes it possible for someone to dip his wet hand into molten lead or to put liquid nitrogen in his mouth without injury."

M. was a senior with experience working with liquid nitrogen. Demonstrating the principle of the Leidenfrost Effect, M. took a small amount of the cryogenic liquid into his mouth, to impress bystanders by blowing "smoke" rings. M. performed a stunt he and other students have been doing for years.

Only this time, he swallowed the liquid nitrogen...

Within seconds, M. collapsed on the floor, unable to breathe or feel anything other than intense pain. The Emergency response team arrived shortly after. They administered oxygen, and transported him to the hospital. The x-rays indicated a that M. had a perforated stomach, and a risk for perforation of the esophagus. The entire gastrointestinal tract was scarred, burned and perforated, and one of his lungs had collapsed.

The swallow reflex is always followed by closing of the epiglottis. In this unfortunate incident, M. had swallowed a cryogenic liquid that rapidly expanded to a gas volume, many times larger than its initial volume (an expansion from a few cc's to several liters gas). The body simply can't purge or accommodate such large quantities of gas, and as a result M. ended up with severe intestinal damage. M. burned his gastrointestinal tract, because of the prolonged contact with the liquid nitrogen. Eventually, the gas film surrounding the liquid nitrogen diminished, and the tract came into contact with a liquid at -196 C (-321 F).



They thought Nitro Mike was the only one.

I am completely deathly serious when I say this. I suffered the same fate. A few years ago (July 1998 if memory serves me correctly), my friend decided to drag me along to the University of Toronto science camp. Wonderful. It was pretty boring (not to insult the program, just wasn’t as good as thought it would be), but at the last day we were promised a special activity. The end of the final day finally arrived. The activity was being prepared during the main part of the day. Many Styrofoam cups were being placed on a table and being filled with Tang powder. I thought, Wow, we're getting Tang. Fantastic. At the end of the period the instructors informed us that we were to make instant slushies by going to the head of the class and having our cups filled up with a small amount of liquid nitrogen. We did so and we noticed that smoke (or nitrogen steam rather) was pouring out of the cups. I was hesitant to do anything with it but my classmates were drinking the 'slushy' just fine and saying it was delicious. The instructors informed me that by simply stirring it and blowing the steam off of the top it would be perfectly safe. I took a gulp. The next part is simply indescribable.

Pain can only go to a certain point when it simply can't get worse. It was 10 times that bad. I vaguely recall smashing myself onto the counter and writhing in intense agony. The ambulance came and the end result was that I was helicoptered to Sick Kids Hospital where they fixed me up. The liquid nitrogen had floated down my oesophagus on a layer of evaporated nitrogen (thus NOT killing me) and then pooled in my stomach where it froze. Liquid nitrogen expands something about 700 times when it evaporates. My stomach was torn open and I was inflated with nitrogen in addition to having stomach acid flowing freely through my body. After about 2 weeks I was discharged. Yes, we have pursued legal action and I have won. Seeing as how we're in Canada though, don't think that I'm making millions. FAR from it. I think the most you can get for having all of your limbs hacked off in Canada is $200 000 CDN. I made a fraction of that. I still feel lucky that I'm alive today. If you're wondering, I live in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. I don't suppose it was as painful as what Nitro Mike apparently experienced (no collapsed lung), but I did have all of the other things he experienced.

In case you were wondering now, I doing fine, although my stomach is the source of much mystery and pain to me. When I make an effort to work out and improve my abdominal muscles I find that I develop a deformed 5 pack, rather than the regular six. This most likely has a lot to do with the fact that a large wall of muscle had to be sawed through to reach my stomach during surgery, and it is most likely that I shall never have a recognizable form to my stomach. Also of note is that the area is still rather sensitive to injury. In the month of April, 2002, a friend punched me in the gut, jokingly. He hit a little too hard, and I was slightly winded. Before I could catch my breath, I spilled into a very scary dream and fell to the floor. My memory of this is about as hazy as the original incident with the liquid nitrogen ingestion, and I was apparently twitching and writhing on the ground as if I had a siezure. I remember thinking back to the feeling I had back in the summer of grade 7, at that wretched science camp. It probably doesn't help that I have very low blood pressure. Even a week after this incident, I noticed intense pain deep within my intestines, a kind of piercing slow agony that must felt to be believed. Hopefully, all of my organs are in working order down there.

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