BALTIMORE – Matt Kelly described the beginning of events seven years ago that nearly killed him and two other people:
“I started getting flu-like symptoms — dizzy, vomiting, that sort of thing,” said the 34-year-old Hamilton resident.
After a few days, he took sick leave, but the longer he stayed home, the worse he felt.
Kelly knew something was seriously wrong when he lay down on his couch, was awakened by a phone call, and discovered he had been asleep 26 hours. His parents drove him to a hospital, where doctors observed his dizziness and unsteadiness and drew logical, but wrong, conclusions.
“They tested me for an inner-ear infection, gave CAT scans thinking it was a brain tumor — they looked for everything,” Kelly said. By this time he had been suffering for a week.
Kelly returned home, still having no idea what was wrong. He was given pills, but was too sick to keep them down. One night something happened that made him decide to leave the house.
“I woke up at 4 a.m. in the middle of the kitchen, face down in the trash can,” Kelly said. “It looked like the inside of a coffin. I thought, `Oh, great. I’ve died. That’s just wonderful.'”
At his parents’, he felt better almost immediately. Then a friend told him he had phoned Kelly’s room, and a stranger had answered. Kelly called his own number, discovering that his home was full of firefighters and paramedics. His roommate had gotten sick, and when his sister tried to get him out, she passed out on the stairs. Both were diagnosed with severe carbon monoxide poisoning.
When Kelly visited his roommate in the hospital, a nurse realized that he was another CO victim.
“So I got thrown down on a gurney and rushed through the doors into the chamber of horrors,” he said. “Shock victims over there, accident victims over there.”
Kelly recovered, as did the other two. The carbon monoxide was traced to a flue clogged with porcelain crumbling from the inside wall.
In 1993, the most recent year for which statistics are available, carbon monoxide from water heaters, furnaces and other appliances killed roughly 600 people nationwide. With the onset of fall’s cooler weather, the danger grows.
Carbon monoxide — CO — is a single atom of carbon attached to a single atom of oxygen. When it enters the lungs, the body mistakes it for oxygen and carries it into the bloodstream. Since it bonds more tightly than oxygen, a relatively small amount drastically reduces blood’s capacity to carry oxygen.
CO cannot be seen, smelled or tasted, and in large quantities can kill rapidly. This past May, five people were killed in Silver Spring by carbon monoxide from a car accidentally left running in the garage.
Although Kelly did not know it at the time, the reason he was able to wake up at all when he fell asleep on the couch was a draft in the room.
Smokers, children and pregnant women are most vulnerable to CO, said Dr. Cynthia Cotto-Cumba of the University of Maryland, who runs the hyperbaric chamber used by the shock trauma unit in cases of moderate to severe CO poisoning and who treated Kelly.
Cotto-Cumba’s unit tests for CO with a venous blood sample. Victims — who may be unconscious, experiencing arrythmia or comatose — are treated first with fresh air, then with rebreather masks providing pure oxygen, then (if necessary) a hyperbaric chamber where they breathe pure oxygen at 2.8 times normal atmospheric pressure.
In addition to flu-like symptoms, CO can cause forgetfulness and disorientation. “It’ll toast your mind pretty good,” said Kelly.
The Office of the State Fire Marshal recommends installing a carbon monoxide alarm at least 15 feet away from a potential source of CO, preferably near a sleeping area.
“If you don’t have a UL [Underwriters Laboratories]-listed carbon monoxide alarm, get one,” said State Fire Marshal Rocco J. Gabriele. Underwriters Laboratories is an independent testing laboratory that certifies CO alarms.
Added Kelly, “The detectors are cheap, and they’re invaluable because carbon monoxide can take you so quickly. And if you have the symptoms, get a blood test. The firefighters couldn’t believe I’d been to two separate emergency rooms and no one had checked for carbon monoxide.”
If your alarm goes off, UL recommends the following procedure:
* Get everyone together and check for headaches, nausea, dizziness, disorientation or other symptoms of CO poisoning.
* If someone has symptoms, leave immediately, call 911 from somewhere else and do not re-enter until told it is safe. * If no one has symptoms, reset the alarm and turn off everything in the house that runs on fossil fuel or features an open flame. Open doors and windows and call a service technician. -30-