Brain injured by breathing

Woman left debilitated after accidentally inhaling toxins

Published on April 14, 2011
Kitty Walsh and her husband, Terry, are shown in their St. John's home.
Tara Bradbury/The Telegram

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?”

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

 

tbradbury@thetelegram.com

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