Prevention key to averting carbon monoxide poisoning
"Prevention is so important," said Peggy School, vice president of clinical care and chief nursing officer at New London Family Medical Center (NLFMC). "Get those carbon monoxide detectors in your home and make sure they are functioning."
On Oct. 30, 11 people were taken by ambulance to NLFMC and two other area hospitals following a carbon monoxide leak at a 16-unit apartment building in the 500 block of Oakridge Lane. All of the patients have since recovered.
"The response and mutual aid went very smoothly and everyone functioned together as a team," School said. "The staff at NLFMC needs to be commended. They responded very quickly and were able to treat these patients and get them to the right level of care."
The carbon monoxide leak was traced to a faulty hot water heater. During the incident, emergency workers were able to quickly ascertain that they were dealing with carbon monoxide poisoning. Those sickened were displaying common symptoms, including headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and confusion. Two of the patients even passed out.
Unless suspected, carbon monoxide poisoning can be difficult to diagnose, because it can mimic other illnesses, such as flu-like symptoms. Carbon monoxide poisonings typically increase during the winter months, when people shut their windows and use alternative heating sources and burn charcoal, oil or wood, for example, in poorly ventilated areas. Malfunctioning gas-fueled furnaces and water heaters can also release dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. Even space heaters can pose a danger.
Beyond the hospital, School has experienced carbon monoxide poisoning first hand.
"Several years ago, I went to take care of a friend who was sick," said School. "Her furnace was broken and she was using a space heater. On my drive home, I had a terrible headache and was having trouble concentrating."
When she walked into the house, her husband knew immediately she was very ill, she recalled. Her face had a cherry red appearance, another symptom of poisoning.
"He took one look at me and said, 'we need to go the hospital. You have carbon monoxide poisoning," she said. They promptly called her friend, telling her to open all her windows and get out of the house. The space heater, it turned out, was the source of the poisoning.
"If you feel sick at home but feel better when you leave the house, you need to suspect carbon monoxide," School added.
For such a dire emergency, the Oct. 30 incident actually occurred at an optimal time, as far as the hospital was concerned.
"We were in the middle of shift change," said Dave Rae, emergency department supervisor at NLFMC. "All of our staff was there to help out. Even our non-clinical staff came in to help out. Everyone stepped up and did a fabulous job."
The pre-hospital response also went smoothly without a hitch, he added. Ambulances from NLFMC, Bear Creek, Clintonville, Manawa and Fremont responded to the scene.
"All of these services assisted us in providing excellent patient care," Rae added.
Six of the patients were treated at NLFMC; two at Riverside Medical Center in Waupaca; and three were sent to St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton, where a hyperbaric chamber is located. Hyperbaric oxygen treatment rapidly clears carbon monoxide from the body and reduces the risk of long-term neurological complications.
"Again, the number one thing to remember is prevention," Rae said. "And if you already have a carbon monoxide detector, test it to make sure it's working and don't forget to change the batteries."
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