‘Silent killer’ nearly claims new victims

ISHPEMING – Jim Pearson could have died.

Last Wednesday night the Ishpeming Township man spent about five hours at Bell Hospital breathing pure oxygen, after symptoms of nausea, headaches, dizziness and confusion – increasing in severity over the course of several months – culminated in the claxon of his carbon monoxide detector and a ride in an ambulance.

“I had the headache from hell, ya know? I was dizzy, everything,” Pearson said. “I couldn’t focus right. It was just unreal. It’d be like being on a master drunk for a week or something and then trying to come off of it. It’s just terrible.”

Pearson, his roommate, Nick Donato, and their two dogs both exhibited signs of carbon monoxide poisoning.

“They got real sick and they asked for the door,” Pearson said of the dogs. “They wanted outside, eh? And there was a couple of times that – no it wasn’t a couple, it was probably a hundred times – that they didn’t want to come back in. So they sensed something was wrong. Like the doctor said, it’s a silent killer.”

It was the second time in the past six months Pearson had been taken to the hospital for carbon monoxide poisoning. The Ishpeming Township Fire Department – which, along with Bell, responded to Pearson’s call to Central Dispatch – and an employee from Marquette’s Hudson Mechanical fingered the culprit: A building-code-violating furnace exhaust pipe mounted directly beside the intake, and far too low on the outside of the house, easily becoming blocked with ice and snow.

“We’re lucky to be alive,” Pearson said. “If it wasn’t as fast as Central (Dispatch) getting with Ishpeming Township Fire Department (and the) ambulance getting back to the doctor’s, there might be a different outcome on it.”

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas produced as an exhaust of a variety of fossil fuels, including gasoline, natural gas and propane, but is also a byproduct of burning wood and charcoal. Carbon monoxide binds more readily to your red blood cells than oxygen does; in enclosed areas and at high enough concentrations it will prevent your blood from being able to carry oxygen, making it potentially deadly.

“If (carbon monoxide levels are) high enough, and people come into the emergency room, we actually put them in a hyperbaric chamber,” said Dr. Karen Eldevick, a board-certified family physician at Marquette General Hospital. “The hyperbaric chamber can force the carbon monoxide off of the red blood cell molecule, and then the red blood cell can pick up oxygen with every breath while you’re in that hyperbaric chamber.”

Unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning kills more than 400 Americans a year, sends more than 20,000 to the emergency room and hospitalizes more than 4,000, according to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Eldevick said she – and other doctors – looks for symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning with any unusual and new symptoms in patients, and stressed the importance of prevention. The most important measure that can be taken is to place carbon monoxide detectors “in your home, kind of like you would put a smoke detector,” she said. “But it’s interesting, I’ve had some families that have had … one area in the house, like where the chimney is leaking, and the person sleeping closest to that area is waking up with headaches all the time. And their carbon monoxide can be significantly higher than someone who sleeps on a different floor on the other side of the house. So you can move the carbon monoxide detector around the house, but you generally put it somewhere you’d put a smoke detector, like at the top of a stairwell. You have to prevent this.”

While Pearson’s headaches persist even several days later, he has now had the exhaust pipe of his furnace extended higher up on his house and said he also plans to replace his furnace and hot water heater.

He now suspects that carbon monoxide levels caused by his house’s inadequate ventilation – which he inherited from its previous owner – have plagued his late wife, his daughters and himself with health problems for years.

“We never paid much attention to it,” he said. “I was talking to my girls this morning and they said, ‘Maybe that’s why we felt sick all the time.’ And we didn’t really know.”

Pearson wanted to raise awareness of how serious carbon monoxide poisoning can be, and praised the quick response of Central Dispatch, Bell Hospital and the Ishpeming Township Fire Department – in particular one volunteer firefighter, Claudia Johnson, whose expertise in identifying his symptoms and insistence that he immediately leave the house he said may well have saved his life.

“I hope you commend the Ishpeming Township Fire Department for what they did, and the doctors and nurses and everyone,” he said.

Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401.