GREENEVILLE, TN – Every year, carbon monoxide poisoning silently kills hundreds of people, usually in their sleep.
A Greeneville gynecologist and her entire family nearly joined the ranks recently as the result of an improperly vented furnace heater in their home.
Dr. Jo Lynn Hawthorne with the Women’s Center of Greeneville said she is alive “only by the grace of God.”
The nightmarish ordeal began the morning of Oct. 18 when Hawthorne and her family awoke for the day. “We all felt fine at first, and I started on breakfast,” she recalled. “Then, in a very short time, we started feeling bad.”
The night before, the Hawthornes had turned on their gas-fueled pool heater before going to bed. “It was when that first cold snap hit,” she said.
The family had just moved into their new home and had never used the heater before.
Upon rising the next day, the Hawthorne’s 15-year old son, Darren, went downstairs to shower. “He left the basement door opened in the process,” Hawthorne said. “And I think that’s when the gas leaked into the house. I don’t think it occurred overnight or we would have been dead. Also, we all woke up feeling fine. It came on us suddenly after Darren’s shower.”
Almost immediately, the family – one by one – began complaining of headaches and dizziness. “I felt so bad and became so dizzy, I had to sit down,” Hawthorne recalled. “My heart was pounding, and I couldn’t breathe very well.”
About that time, Hawthorne’s 12-year-old son, Derek, said he couldn’t walk down the hall and that he felt really bad. He went back to bed.
Then, the other two boys – Darren and his 18-year-old brother, Duane Jr. – joined the family, saying they had headaches and felt bad, too.
“I thought, ‘Why is everyone sick,’” Hawthorne said. “Then, it clicked. I thought, ‘Something in this house is poisoning us.’ I told everyone to get out of the house immediately. I opened a window and went outside, praying that the basement door was unlocked. It was, and I told my husband, Duane, ‘Get out of this house, right this minute.’”
Hawthorne called the emergency department at Takoma Adventist Hospital to alert them that she was bringing her entire family in for treatment, and then she called the local gas department to inform them of a suspected problem.
“I got everyone in the car and drove us to the hospital,” Hawthorne said. “I was so fuzzy-brained to drive. I remember calling my mom and telling her that we just nearly died, but that I had to go. I was just rambling.”
Once at Takoma, they quickly drew blood from Hawthorne to check her carbon monoxide levels. “Normal levels are zero,” Hawthorne explained. “Mine was 30. It was almost lethal. The gas company later told us that the level in the house was 120. They were shocked we all survived. They said that if it had happened overnight, we would all be dead. And, if we had stayed inside another 15 minutes, we would have all been dead. That’s sobering information. What happens is the longer you’re exposed to it, the more confused and disoriented you become. Then, you eventually just lie down somewhere and die.”
The entire family was then put in hyperbaric chambers at Takoma Hospital for three hours to help speed recovery.
“Carbon monoxide is harmful – even deadly – when breathed because it displaces oxygen in the blood and deprives the heart, brain and other vital organs of oxygen,” Hawthorne explained. “Carbon monoxide poisoning can be reversed if caught in time and, fortunately, ours was. The hyperbaric chambers elevated the amount of oxygen in our body to five times the normal level. This surge of pure oxygen helped speed up the excretion of carbon monoxide from our blood.”
The boys felt better “instantaneously,” but Hawthorne and her husband continued to feel bad for several days, she said. “I think I’m better now, though.”
Not surprisingly, Hawthorne today is a big advocate for carbon monoxide detectors. “We didn’t have a carbon monoxide detector because we had just moved into the house, and we had never had gas heat before,” she said. “I didn’t really think about it. But, everyone needs carbon monoxide detectors in their homes if they have any kind of gas – portable gas, a gas stove, a gas dryer, whatever.”
Carbon monoxide is a poisonous, colorless, odorless and tasteless gas, she said. “Large amounts of carbon monoxide can overcome you in minutes without warning, causing you to lose consciousness and suffocate.”
In addition to headaches, dizziness and tightness across the chest, symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning may include fatigue, drowsiness or nausea.
“Protection against this deadly poison is as easy as installing a simple carbon monoxide detector in your home,” Hawthorne said.
If you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, act quickly, Hawthorne stressed.
“Get outside to fresh air immediately and call 9-1-1,” she said. “Time can be the difference between life and death.”