Twelve years ago, I had a close call.
It felt like the flu, but I sent my husband off on his retreat to Saint Joseph in the Hills anyway. With a new job and new baby on the way, it seemed like it might be the last chance he’d have to spend time in prayer and meditation for a while. Flu, schmoo.
I’d already been sick for a few days, with a pounding headache, fatigue and general achiness that typically comes with the flu. What’s the old saying about the timeframe for colds and flu? "Three days coming, three days staying, three days going…" I was sure I was on the mend, or would be soon.
I took Tylenol, sparingly, and seemingly without benefit. The headache and pain never went away. I took my daughter to school each day, and returned home, to bed to get enough extra rest to get over being sick. When Friday afternoon rolled around, I managed to have my husband’s weekend bag packed so he’d be able to take off to Malvern after work.
Seeing the dark circles around my eyes that highlighted the headache, Basil almost called the retreat off, but I assured him that Serena and I would be OK. It was just for a couple days… and he’d be home right after Mass on Sunday morning. He left us with kisses and promises to check in regularly.
Serena slept with me that Friday night. I wrapped my arms around her little body, having just enough room to get around her despite being in my sixth month of pregnancy, and fell asleep despite the jackhammer pounding away in my head.
We slept until almost noon on Saturday. I woke up feeling very disoriented. The phone was ringing, but sounded so far away. It took all of my strength to get up to answer it. Basil’s voice sounded concerned.
“I’ve called twice. Did you go out?”
I hadn’t. And I hadn’t heard the phone. Serena was still sleeping.
“Make sure you drink plenty, so you flush the germs out of you. Don’t forget your prenatal vitamin.”
I poured Serena a glass of orange juice and walked back into the bedroom just as she was waking up.
With just one look, I knew she had the flu too.
My normally hyperactive six-year old was laying quietly in bed, instead of bounding to the livingroom for the new Playstation game. She wasn’t doing much of anything.
“My head hurts.”
“Mine too, baby. Let me take your temperature.”
Normal, 98.6. This was surprising. Fevers were the only thing that ever made my rambunctious girlie still and quiet.
We took Tylenol and ate the soup that my mother in law had sent home for us. We sat around on the sofa watching TV and slept a lot during the day. We felt crappy, both of us with headaches and the general malaise that comes with flu and fever. When Basil called, he woke me up.
“You’re asleep already?”
“Mmmhmm. Love you. See you in the morning?”
I rolled back over, spooning Serena. Even the jackhammer didn’t keep me awake anymore.
Sunday, Basil came home bringing lunch that neither I, nor Serena wanted to eat. We just felt too sick. For me, sitting up took too much energy.
Basil took the laundry to the Laundromat. He picked up more groceries. He made dinner – another meal no one felt like eating. By the time he was ready for bed, he had a headache too.
“Looks like I’m coming down with the flu too.”
“Guess we’re all staying in bed tomorrow.”
“No can do. I can’t miss any of the orientation days at the new place.”
Basil left for work early despite not feeling well. With the new job, came a better medical insurance policy, just in time for baby #2. It wasn’t something he wanted to jeopardize. After he left, I climbed into bed with Serena. She looked so pale and fragile laying there. I fell asleep next to her.
“Mooooom, I have to go to school today. It’s the book fair today."
She already had her blue school jumper pulled over her head. I acquiesced, knowing full well that I didn’t have enough fight in me to argue and that the school nurse would definitely call me to pick her up if Serena wasn’t well enough to stay.
“Mom, I feel sick.”
“Me too, baby.”
“No, I mean I’m going to throw up.”
I grabbed her, ran to the bathroom and sat her in my lap to support her as she leaned over the toilet and began to heave. Only she stopped heaving, and started flailing. When I turned her over, he eyes rolled back in her head, and she voided her bladder, and was unconscious.
I dialed 911, but had trouble getting words out. I felt nauseous, dizzy, light-headed. By the time EMS arrived, Serena had regained consciousness and I had taken her out of her urine soaked uniform and pulled a flannel nightgown over her. They suggested that I take her to the doctor and left us.
They were right of course.
I hurried to get dressed, only I couldn’t seem to make my fingers work the buttons on my favorite maternity blouse. I wanted to lay down.
The phone rang. The caller ID showed an incoming call from the nursing home where Basil was working.
“Are you OK? The neighbors said an ambulance just left and called to make sure you were OK.”
I threw up.
“Are you throwing up?"
“I don’t know…I uh… I uh… I uh…”
“I’m coming home right now!”
In a blur, I managed to pull on my husband’s Big and Tall oversized T-shirt, and a pair of his sweatpants. I couldn’t make my hands tie sneaker laces, so I slid on his bedroom slippers. I knew I had to get Serena to the hospital. I managed to pick her up, put her in the car, and drive on auto-pilot to St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children.
I parked in the ambulance bay… sideways. I couldn’t figure out how to park anywhere else. I took Serena inside, and as I tried to explain what was happening, words came like gibberish, but then I clearly said:
“I’m going down...”
I began to fall, feeling very much like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, only vaguely aware of someone catching me before I hit the floor, all within moments of arriving in the ER.
When I woke up, I found IV’s in my arms. Someone was taking blood. Someone else was asking me what I took. I saw Serena on another gurney being interrogated. My words did not come, my thoughts were askew, but I still remember the way her pale blue eyes looked so sunken into her pale face.
Serena was able to give Daddy’s name and phone number. I could hear him on the phone with one of the nurses. He was confused and scared when he arrived home and couldn't find us, or a note. Something I was unable to figure out how to do.
The next few hours were strange. I was sent to another hospital (St. Christopher’s does not treat adults) where they had a bed on a maternity ward waiting for me. I was hooked up to monitors, ultrasounds were performed. No one could figure out what was wrong.
St. Christopher’s drew labs looking for drugs. The tests came back clean. Baby seemed fine.
I was not fine.
Basil came to the hospital, and let me know that Serena had been checked out and was discharged. Basil had dropped her off to his parents’ home before coming to me.
Several hours passed. Doctors did not know what to make of me. I drifted in and out of sleep.
And then the attending doctor from St. Christopher’s Emergency Room called with a suggestion: test for carbon monoxide poisoning.
Sandbags were brought in. They needed blood from an artery. Not pleasant.
The results came back quickly. After eight hours out of our home, I still had life threatening levels of carbon monoxide poisoning.
While I was administered oxygen therapy because of my pregnancy, Basil was directed to bring Serena back to Saint Christopher’s immediately. They were both taken to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania by ambulance to be treated in the hyperbaric chamber.
PGW was dispatched to our home, escorted by the police, who searched our home and found the heat exchange had cracked due to a build-up of soot that our landlord had never bothered to have cleaned or serviced. Carbon Monoxide gas poured through the forced air vents of our home, slowly poisoning us, almost to death. Gas service was turned off until the landlord had repairs done and PGW approved the work done in a satisfactory manner.
We never lived in that apartment again and only went back to collect our belongings.
We are lucky to be alive. Many others are not so lucky.
Stories like these are common during the winter months
Be Safe This Winter!
This is the season that most of us are beginning to turn on our home heating sources. Please take the time to call a licensed contractor to check your heating system. Invest in a quality carbon monoxide detector with a dual power source (AC and battery back-up in case of power outage) for every level of your home.
For more information about carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms and what you can do to keep your family safe, please visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s website here.