As It Happens

Angler nearly dies after swallowing fish he was trying to kiss

Sam Quilliam tried to kiss a fish but it jumped down his throat and sent him into cardiac arrest. He tells us about his near-death experience and his quick-thinking friends who helped save his life.
Angler Sam Quilliam, centre, went into cardiac arrest when a fish he was trying to kiss jumped down his throat. (South Western Ambulance Service/Twitter)

Read Story Transcript

Sam Quilliam is lucky to be alive.

The 27-year-old from England was out fishing earlier this month when he caught a Dover sole.

Before he threw the fish back, he attempted to give it a kiss. But that's when everything went terribly wrong. The fish sprung from Quilliam's hands and lodged itself in his throat, blocking his airway. 

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke with Quilliam after he returned to the pier where the freak accident happened. Here is part of their conversation.

Sam, how are you feeling today?

Not too bad. I've still got quite a sore throat but I'm feeling a lot better — a lot better than being dead, eh?

Can you just take us back to your day fishing? How big was the fish that you caught?

I'd say it was probably six or seven inches long. The main reason we went down to Boscombe Pier was to catch some squid for bait because they're attracted to the lights at night. The other thing you catch at night is Dover sole. 
Sam Quilliam says he tried to kiss the fish that almost killed him for good luck. (Sam Quilliam)

You caught a Dover sole then and you were going to throw it back?

Yes. It was undersized so I was going to throw it back. ... I thought I'd give it a kiss as a gesture of goodwill and it will grow. I might catch it another day or someone else might catch it another day.

I probably didn't have a real tight grip on it. They are quite slippery, as it is. It started wriggling in my hand as I went to give it a kiss. I sort of gasped as it shot towards me and it ended up in my mouth. They're bottom feeders and live in the mud, in the sand. My guess is that it thought it had got into the water or something and its instinct was to just burrow. It managed to get its head buried and wedged right into my throat.

What did you do?

Instant panic really set in. I tried to get my hand down my throat and grab it and pull it out. I just couldn't get a grip of it. My mate could see what had happened and just [had] a look of shock and disbelief.

There was a guy who tried to give me the Heimlich maneuver ... Then I threw myself on a sort of metal bike rack to try to dislodge it as a last ditch attempt and that was my last memory before I passed out. 

Because you weren't breathing?

Yeah, it completely blocked my airway. 

At what point did you go into cardiac arrest?

Probably within 40 seconds to a minute of the fish going into my throat. My mate Steve instantly phoned 999 when he saw it happening.

After I passed out, Matt — being first-aid trained — realized I'd stopped breathing and I had no pulse. He started carrying out CPR. I wasn't breathing and my heart had stopped for nearly six-minutes — potentially even longer.

My mate, Steve, he was giving me breaths and breathing into my lungs. He said he tried the first two times but there was blood coming out of my mouth and he couldn't do anything about it. On his last attempt, he blew as hard as he could and managed to get a little bit of air into my lungs.
When he stopped breathing Quilliam says his friend Steve, left, performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to keep him alive. (Sam Quilliam)

He saved your life.

Yeah, really. Between my two mates and the paramedics, the real reason I'm here today is that they acted quickly. Matt had the first aid training and they carried out CPR instantly.

Do you know how [the paramedic extracted the fish]?

They had sort of like a device that opens the mouth really wide. He was looking at the back of my throat with a torch and all he could see was the very tip of the tail at the back of my throat. He then had a long set of forceps, which are sort of bent at 45 degrees. They are called Magill's forceps, amazingly, no pun intended. But he managed to get a hold of the tail and after a few attempts he managed to pull it out of my throat.

He said it took six tries before he was able to pull that fish out.

Yeah, just an absolutely amazing bloke. 
Sam Quilliam holding up a fish when he was a kid. (Sam Quilliam)

He also said as he pulled it out he could see that the gills and sharp fins were scraping the inside of your throat. Have you recovered from that?

I was on a liquid diet for four days nearly, before I even attempted to eat any sort of normal food. I lost a stone of weight. If anyone is looking to lose weight just eat yogurt for four days. It's a pretty quick way to lose a lot of weight.

So what's the lesson learned, besides don't try to kiss a fish?

Well yeah, that. And I think the most important thing is that if you find someone in that situation you either clear their airway, or, if you can't do that, you start giving them CPR. You just give them as much of a chance as you can give them because at the end of the day that's someone's son, daughter, mother, father, grandfather.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Sam Quilliam.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.