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Carbon monoxide: A stealthy killer

Carbon monoxide: A stealthy killer

December 27th, 2010 in News

Don Norfleet/FULTON SUN photo: Debbie Moreland provides constant care for her brother, Chris Heller, in her home near Fulton. A victim of carbon monoxide poisoning seven months ago, Heller is unable to move or speak and is fed with a feeding tube.

Carbon monoxide can slip into your home undetected and steal your life.

That almost happened to Chris Heller of Fulton, a former Jefferson City resident. Heller lies in a bed all day unable to move or speak, taking nourishment from a feeding tube.

Debbie Moreland, Heller's sister, now cares for him at her home on Route NN near Fulton.

It all started about seven months ago in late May when Heller was living in Jefferson City. He worked in construction and was partially disabled from back injuries. Heller didn't know it, but his home water heater was faulty and was emitting odorless but extremely toxic carbon monoxide gas into his home.

Heller was having headaches, dizziness and felt so bad he went to the emergency room a couple of times at a hospital in Jefferson City. The first time he was given medication for vertigo and the second time he received medication for his headache. Carbon monoxide poisoning was never suspected as a cause.

Heller's friend who took him to the emergency room earlier came back to check on him later in the day. He found Heller lying unconscious on his couch. Blood oozed from his mouth and ears. His dog was dead on the floor next to him.

Moreland said her brother was hospitalized on June 1 for two weeks in Jefferson City. He was unable to move or talk and had to be fed with a feeding tube. Heller was taken to a nursing home in Jefferson City with anoxic brain damage.

Moreland said even though he had been at the nursing home only about a month he had six bed sores on him. "I have worked as a certified nursing aide in a nursing home and I don't believe the nursing home was turning him in bed. I decided to take him home with me and care for him," Moreland said.

Although her brother can start to smile or cry, he makes no sounds.

But the constant care Moreland provides to her brother has taken a toll on her. She basically spends all of her time day and night to care for her brother. She sets her alarm at night to get up and turn her brother every two to three hours. Three times a day, she grinds her brother's medication in pill form into a powder and mixes with warm water. She then injects it into a tube leading to her brother's stomach.

Sometimes when she gets up during the night she isn't able to go back to sleep. "Right now I'm really tired," Moreland said.

Moreland is disabled and has not worked at a full-time job since 1996 because of an operation on her back. Moreland and her brother both receive disability payments from Social Security. He also was partially disabled with back problems before he was hospitalized. "I guess back problems run in the family," Moreland said.

Hospice Care provides assistance to Heller for two hours a day Monday through Friday. That gives his sister a chance to run to the store for groceries and other shopping chores.

During the weekend, Integrity Home Care provides two hours of help during the day.

Because her brother is unable to speak, only two hours of help is offered on weekends. "If he could talk he could get eight hours of care from Integrity. It doesn't make much sense, but that's the rule," Moreland said.

This weekend no one is coming from Integrity to help because of the Christmas holiday. That means a long and lonely holiday weekend for Moreland. "I keep hoping someone in the community will volunteer to help me from time to time. To be honest, I'm getting tired," Moreland said.

Kim Case of Jefferson City is a friend of Moreland who comes to visit him about once a month. "Over the years Chris and I have been good friends," Case says.

"Chris was doing well before this happened to him. He's only 53 years old. It's extremely important that people understand what carbon monoxide can do to people. In Chris's case, it is absolutely horrible," Case said.

Fulton Fire Chief Dean Buffington said during the 30 years he has been a fireman he knows of more than a dozen Fulton residents who died in their homes after they were poisoned by carbon monoxide, a deadly colorless and odorless gas. "There was one carbon monoxide incident in which three Fulton residents died at one time," Buffington said.

Some deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning go undetected when elderly people die alone.

Buffington said he believes many carbon monoxide deaths are not attributed to the real cause. "People who study this issue have reported that trying to ascertain how many possible carbon monoxide incidents have occurred is extremely difficult to have accurate statistics. This is because a lot of time the incidents go unnoticed or unreported," Buffington said.

The fire chief believes carbon monoxide problems often are misdiagnosed because the symptoms are similar to flu-like symptoms. The symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure are headache, dizziness, weakness, sleepiness, nausea and vomiting.

Margaret Donnelly, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said carbon monoxide can make people sick and in high concentrations can kill quickly. It's especially sinister because it often strikes when people are sleeping.

Donnelly said last year 90 people in Missouri are known to have died from carbon monoxide exposure and another 289 were sent to hospital emergency departments for treatment.

"By the time you experience symptoms, it may be too late to call for help," Donnelly said. "If you suspect carbon monoxide in your home or vehicle, you need to exit your house or car and seek fresh air immediately."

Donnelly said carbon monoxide also can cause people with heart disease to develop an irregular heartbeat. Exposure to high concentrations of the gas can cause disorientation, coma and convulsions - eventually leading to death.

"I think carbon monoxide poisoning often is misdiagnosed because people think they have the flu. So they go to the store and get something for the flu," Buffington said.

"Because carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless, there is no accurate way of identifying it without a carbon monoxide detector. That's why we recommend strongly that every home and business be equipped with both carbon monoxide detectors and smoke detectors," the fire chief said.

Carbon monoxide detectors and smoke detectors are relatively inexpensive and can be purchased at department and hardware stores as well as online. Carbon monoxide detectors can be plugged directly into a wall socket and are operated by electricity. Versions with backup batteries are also available. Stand-alone battery operated versions can be purchased, just like smoke detectors.

Carbon monoxide is released when fuels are burned. That includes gasoline, natural gas, propane, kerosene, charcoal and even wood. Possible sources of carbon monoxide poisoning are virtually endless in most homes. They include gas furnaces, gas space heaters, stoves, generators, hot water heaters, clothes dryers, kerosene heaters, wood stoves and fireplaces. Cars, trucks and boats also can produce high levels of carbon monoxide.

All-electric homes are regarded as safe from carbon monoxide because there is no combustion flame to burn fuel.

"The Fulton Fire Department will come check the residence of anyone in Fulton who believes they may have a problem with carbon monoxide," Buffington said.

Buffington said some homes have unvented natural gas fireplaces. "They burn the gas with high efficiency. They should not be a problem if they are UL listed, installed by a certified and reputable technician and maintained properly. But I certainly would have a carbon monoxide detector if I had one of those unvented natural gas fireplaces," Buffington said.