April 05, 2020

Hope Amid Ruins> Carbon Monoxide; Family from Etna sickened

ETNA — A family of five in Etna was nearly overcome by carbon monoxide fumes Sunday evening as they tried to maintain the heat in their home.

The family was the second carbon monoxide-related call that Community Ambulance of Dixmont received over the weekend when many people turned to alternative heat and power sources.

Virginia Cole, owner and chief of Community Ambulance, declined to release the names of the victims, citing confidentiality.

The family reportedly was affected by propane space heaters in use in the home. Records at St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor, however, indicated the family may have been cooking in the basement with a charcoal grill.

Either activity can cause carbon monoxide poisoning and symptoms such as headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, according to Dr. Frederick Oldenburg, director of respiratory therapy and the hyperbaric oxygen unit at St. Joseph.

The father of the family first suspected carbon monoxide and removed his wife and children from the home, Cole said. The couple had difficulty waking the three children, but all were alert when the ambulance arrived, she said. The ambulance started for Sebasticook Valley Hospital in Pittsfield and was referred to St. Joseph Hospital when the carbon monoxide level in the home was checked.

“We weren’t sure of the level. But you treat for the worst and hope for the best,” Cole said.

Only two members of the family were treated in the oxygen chamber, Oldenburg said.

St. Joseph Hospital has the only hyperbaric oxygen chamber in the state available for emergency treatment. The hospital treated three people for carbon monoxide poisoning in recent days.

Oldenburg said the unit is a plexiglass chamber slightly larger than the iron lung one might see in old movies. The unit has 360-degree visibility, an internal telephone and a remote control for a television, according to hospital spokeswoman Kathy Jeffries. Length of time in the chamber depends on the injury and its severity.

The unit provides 100 percent oxygen to displace and dissolve carbon monoxide in the body. It also can reverse tissue damage to overcome long-term effects of carbon monoxide.

Eighty percent of the people treated in the chamber suffer from chronic or poorly healing ulcers and poor blood supply to the extremities, Oldenburg said. It also is used as a treatment for gangrene and as a therapy for flesh-eating bacteria.

The chamber is most commonly known for the treatment of divers suffering from “the bends,” gas bubbles in the system caused by a quick return to the surface.

“Prompt treatment improves the outcome,” Oldenburg said. “Ideally, we like to treat within six hours.”

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