Brain injured by breathing

Tara Bradbury
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Woman left debilitated after accidentally inhaling toxins

Kitty Walsh and her husband, Terry, are shown in their St. John's home.

Part 5 in a six-part series


Sit down for a chat with Kitty Walsh and you’ll instantly be struck by her. From her coiffed hair and impeccably applied makeup to her constant smile and friendly nature, Kitty is beautiful in every sense of the word.

But Kitty’s had a tough road to travel these past nine years, and it wasn’t too long ago that her sparkling eyes were clouded by the intense pain of constant migraines. To smile took an effort she often couldn’t make.

There was a point where Kitty needed help with her wardrobe every day from her husband. She was debilitated by the air she was breathing; she inhaled a brain injury.

Kitty was a self-described workaholic employed as a personnel consultant in Toronto in 2002. She was working at her desk early one morning, before any of her colleagues had arrived, when her computer started running slowly and inexplicably freezing up.

Continuing to work as best she could, Kitty called the IT department. Soon after, she started noticing a smell of rotten eggs.

“When they got there, they said, ‘Oh my God,’ and crawled under the desk and ripped out the plugs, and there was smoke,” Kitty said.

“What had happened was the fan in the (central processing unit) had stopped working, and the motherboard was burning. For about an hour and a half, I had literally inhaled every toxin known to man.”

At this point, Kitty was feeling dizzy and nauseous, and her employer sent her to the hospital. By the time she arrived, crying, she had forgotten her own name. When doctors checked her over and released her, she had no idea how to get home, or even where home was.

“I looked through my wallet and found my driver’s licence,” Kitty said. “I showed it to a taxi driver and he took me home.”

When Kitty’s husband, Terry, came home at suppertime, he found her lying in bed, unable to tell him what was wrong.

“She woke up the next morning and didn’t even know how to put her underwear on,” Terry said.

“I took her to our family doctor right away.”

Over the next year, Kitty saw doctor after doctor and underwent a multitude of tests, which didn’t reveal much about her condition. She was put on Ativan for anxiety and Paxil for depression, which she said made her condition worse.

“Everything was blank inside and I couldn’t find my words. I was trying so hard to get things out, that’s what brought on the anxiety. It wasn’t the other way around,” Kitty told The Telegram.

“It was like trying to get the wheels moving in quicksand.”

“She became a shell of the person she was before,” added Terry. “My wife used to be able to read two or three books in one night; now it might take her six months to read one, and that’s only if it’s a book she’s already read.”

Kitty suffers cognitive effects from inhaling the toxic chemicals, and often has trouble following conversations and putting sentences together, she said. She is hypersensitive to sounds like the phone or doorbell, gets severe migraines if she smells things like cleaning fluids or gasoline, and sometimes gets confused with things, like the difference between hot and cold. Staying social is one of her biggest challenges, she said, particularly because she finds it difficult to think on the spot.

“If I’m going to make a phone call to a friend, I’ll have to write down the conversation beforehand,” she explained. “I’ll write, ‘I’m good, how are you? How are the kids?’ and things like that, because I know I won’t think to say them. When you’re visiting someone in real life, you’ve got to think on your feet and it’s exhausting. I take the easy way out.”

Kitty was eventually laid off from her job because of her injury, and she and Terry decided to move to this province — Terry was born and raised in St. John’s — to get away from the smog and pollution of downtown Toronto and into some fresh air.

Once here, they consulted family physician Gordon Higgins, who diagnosed Kitty with frontal lobe brain damage right away.

“He was the first doctor who took me seriously,” Kitty said.

Higgins referred Kitty to Dr. Hugh Mirolo, the province’s only neuropsychiatrist, and after being on his wait list for three years, she became his patient.

Mirolo is treating Kitty for a brain injury caused by the inhalation of chemicals from her burning computer.

Mirolo said in his practice, he doesn’t see much difference in the symptoms of a patient like Kitty, who suffered a brain injury from environmental factors, and one who might have received a brain injury in a car accident or some other physical trauma.

While a brain injury like Kitty’s could happen to anyone, at any time, the majority of Mirolo’s patients who are dealing with a chemically caused brain injuries received their injury while trying to kill themselves with carbon monoxide.

The cause of a chemical injury could be twofold, Mirolo said —both the direct toxic effects of the chemicals and a lack of oxygen.

The brain is one of the most susceptible organs to the effects of chemicals, he said, and some of its cells are more vulnerable than others.

“When you have a global noxa (something that harms the body), it hits everything, but some cells are more vulnerable than others,” Mirolo explained.

“You need the whole brain in order to be able to perceive and process and retrieve information and send it back; there is a multiplicity of cells that need to work for that to happen, and if you have that global noxa to the brain, the chances are very high that you’re going to hit one of those areas.”

Brain damage from the inhalation of chemicals can take mere seconds, Mirolo said.

“A puff of nicotine takes six to 12 seconds to reach the brain — absorption by inhalation is that fast,” he said. “If you’re inhaling poisons, you could be gone very quickly. You inhale it, it goes into your brain and your blood, and who the heck knows where it goes then?”

“What had happened was the fan in the (central processing unit) had stopped working, and the motherboard was burning. For about an hour and a half, I had literally inhaled every toxin known to man.” Kitty Walsh

Apart from suicide attempts, the typical example of chemical brain injury occurs in people trying to get a high from inhaling volatile hydrocarbons contained in things like glue, gas, paints and solvents, Mirolo said. However accidental inhalation, as in Kitty’s case, is easily possible, too. Pesticide, vehicles with faulty exhaust pipes and broken furnaces that are releasing carbon monoxide are two invisible potential causes, he said.

Nicotine and marijuana are two of the most toxic chemicals to the brain, Mirolo added.

“Marijuana is toxic to the brain to the point where we can see the effects of it on an EEG,” he explained.

Effects of chemicals on the brain can be acute or chronic, with symptoms ranging from nausea, headaches, dizziness or light-headedness and shortness of breath, to immediate brain damage or death within minutes.

Just about any burning substance can be dangerous, Mirolo said.

“Anything burning has the potential to release chemicals, particularly when you’re burning stuff that has multiple components to it,” he explained.

Since she started her treatment with Mirolo for her brain injury, Kitty has made great progress. With a combination of medication, phototherapy with a special lamp that replicates sunlight, good sleep hygiene measures, a healthy diet and an exercise regime — which sees her taking four-kilometre walks — Kitty said she’s feeling much better than she felt a year ago. She enjoys gardening, visits with her grandchildren and going to the movies.

“I get great joy when I’ve done something and it worked out — like if I cook a meal and haven’t burned myself,” she said with a laugh.

Mirolo considers her injury to be serious and long-term, but not irreversible, but Kitty admitted she can’t see herself getting back to the person she was 10 years ago.

“I know I’m not going to wake up one morning and be OK. I know I’m never going to be smart or funny or clever anymore. I don’t really know who I was before, but I know I was a fighter and an achiever. Dr. Mirolo gave me a sense of who I am now, and I’m trying to make the best of it.

“This is personal stuff for me that I don’t usually talk about. It’s an uphill battle and you don’t know if you’re ever going to get better. But if one person can read my story and say, ‘Wow, there is hope,’ or if I can make someone understand about brain injury, I’ll be happy.”


Friday: From patient to advocate

Organizations: The Telegram

Geographic location: Toronto

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Recent comments

  • brainfan
    April 16, 2011 - 12:12

    Some day, the voices of multiple chemical sensitivity will overwhelm the malicious voices of denial. Kitty Walsh is just one of countless victims of this debilitating illness who not only have to suffer the hideous effects of the disease, but also have to suffer the misanthropic rantings of callous people who heap abuse on us because they refuse to acknowledge reality.

  • Gillian Broughton
    April 14, 2011 - 19:48

    Both me and my son were exposed to weedkiller containing 2,4 D , we are both really sick with thyroid , adrenal issues doctors in UK are clueless . We both suffer MCS to most things we have had to get rid of household chemicals and personal body care !!!

  • Rob Cashin
    April 14, 2011 - 11:21

    "Nicotine and marijuana are two of the most toxic chemicals to the brain" ??? I'm no neuropsychologist, nor a medical professional of any sort - but I really have to question that statement. George Lundberg, MD, former editor of JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), says "To my knowledge, marijuana has never toxicologically killed any one." Dr. Lester Grinspoon is Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He says of marijuana: "it is remarkably non-toxic" And the quote below is from: OPINION AND RECOMMENDED RULING, FINDINGS OF FACT, CONCLUSIONS OF LAW AND DECISION OF Administrative LAW JUDGE. FRANCIS L. YOUNG "In strict medical terms marijuana is far safer than many foods we commonly consume. For example, eating ten raw potatoes can result in a toxic response. By comparison, it is physically impossible to eat enough marijuana to induce death. Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. " There may well be a valid interpretation of Dr. Mirolo's statement - perhaps a particular technical contextual usage of the term 'toxic', that I am not aware of. If so, I think it should have been clarified, since it only perpetuates some very nasty myths. And for the record - because any attack on marijuana myths is invariably attributed to one's status as a 'pothead' - I don't smoke the stuff.

    • MaryJane Cannabian
      April 14, 2011 - 11:41

      Thank You, Mr. Cashin, for educating readers with the truth about Cannabis, it is much appreciated.

  • Barbara Harris
    April 14, 2011 - 10:17

    Thanks so much for this article. This invisible disability is all too common. Some call it Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, some call it Environmental Sensitivity, some call it Chemical Brain Injury, and some try to discount it and blame the victim as having a psychiatric problem. I have lived through a similar struggle for the last 20 years. There was no identifiable "triggering incident." Over the years, I have had some gradual improvements. One of the most helpful things to me was beginning Lumosity brain training one year ago. The improvement has been amazing - quite beyond what I would have believed possible. This program is designed on the new understanding of the brain's capacity to heal. It has helped me to regain brain function I have not had for decades. I still slip back with exposure to toxins, but my memory, logic, brain flexibility and other brain skills we take for granted before we lose them have come back in a way which is life-changing. I wish Kitty, and all who suffer from life changing brain injury well, and thanks for sharing your stories.

  • Judith Day
    April 14, 2011 - 07:32

    WOW. What a story! I was brain damaged from chemicals, but they were prescribed drugs when instead of being diagnosed with cfs/fm/mci, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, certified in the Waterford Hospital for 5 weeks in 1995 and from there my nightmare begins. With 5 more admissions to psychiatry under different psychiatrists, I nearly died in 1998, but checked myself out of hospital as nobody was paying attention to my physical symptoms of palpitations, muscle weakness, and memory loss as they threatened me with certification and more forced drugs, which I felt was going to kill me. Through education, self care. I survived and improved my health by my will to live, determination and perserverance. I lived to tell my story/ Judging Judi.