Except for a flat tire, it had been an uneventful trip last July — a drive from Florida to New York to visit relatives.
But everything changed when Larry Schrefler's companion began complaining of dizziness.
Traveling along Interstate 81 near Hagerstown, her symptoms worsened and the 82-year-old driver decided to pull their recreational vehicle off the highway.
As he did so, his friend lost consciousness.
Schrefler immediately called 911 and waited for an ambulance that took the couple to Meritus Medical Center.
Tests showed that the woman's carboxyhemoglobin was high, said Constance Duffey, a registered nurse who was care manager on the floor where the couple was admitted.
Doctors decided to test Schrefler as well, Duffey said, and found the same results.
Both were suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.
When Schrefler had changed that flat tire many miles back, the exhaust of the RV had become detached and then protruded through the floorboard of the recreational vehicle, allowing carbon monoxide to leak into the driver's cabin.
The prognosis came as a surprise to the couple — which is typical, medical experts report.
You can't see, smell or taste carbon monoxide. But at high levels it's a killer.
The poisonous vapor claims more than 1,500 people in North America each year and at least 10,000 others will be affected seriously enough to require medical attention.
Schrefler and his companion were among the lucky ones.
Both were treated in Meritus' Wound Center hyperbaric chambers and then kept overnight.
Hyberbaric treatment involves placing the body in a sealed chamber pressurized up to three times the average amount of normal atmospheric pressure. The chamber allows for an isolated form of oxygen therapy so it can penetrate the body faster than traditional oxygen therapy via a mask or nasal cannula.
But staying at Meritus for an extended amount of time presented a few anxieties for the older couple.
Not only were they dealing with a medical emergency, "they were both distraught over how their dog Ada — their baby — was doing," Duffey recalled.
The problem was solved when Susan Bayer, a trauma assistant at Meritus, volunteered to take the dog home with her for the night.
"My husband and I were visiting a friend in the room next to Schrefler's in the ER and someone had just brought Ada in from their vehicle because of the heat," Bayer said. "She was so adorable and it was obvious she was scared. I found out that they would have to send Ada to a veterinarian's office for the night so I talked to the nurse caring for the couple and told her I would take Ada home with us."
Bayer said she has a small beagle who gets along well with other dogs so she didn't think twice about having Ada stay overnight.
"She was so well-behaved and stayed right by my side," Bayer said. "I would hope that if I were in the same situation, someone would do the same for me."
Stepping in to lend a helping hand isn't new to Bayer.
"I've always been willing to help out if needed," she said. "I remember years ago a mother was brought in after an auto accident and had a baby with her and no one to care for the child. So I took care of the baby until family members arrived."
"I feel like this was one chance for me to pay it forward," she added. "What I did was something small, but it brought a smile to the faces of a couple from out of town - and it made me feel so good."
The couple also was concerned about their RV — their only mode of transportation, Duffey said.
"They felt very stranded and, of course, the elderly man was very worried about driving the vehicle again if it had not been properly fixed," she noted.
As the care manager, Duffey works in a collaborative fashion to assist patients with resources — both in and out of the hospital.
"This seemed very important to them and I felt it was no big deal to see if I could figure something out," she said.
She began searching the internet for a place to service the vehicle, located a repair shop and explained the situation.
"They immediately responded to our request and arrived within 30 minutes to talk with the patient," Duffey recalled. "They were very helpful and worked with the patient on obtaining his keys and driving the RV safely to their location.
The shop provided an estimate, spoke with Schrefler and were given permission to fix it.
Duffey said the couple was told it would take several hours for the job to be completed and because it was a very hot day, arrangements were made not to discharge the patients until the vehicle was ready.
"I gave them lunch and encouraged a nap while they waited," Duffey said.
After the vehicle was repaired, Bayer said her husband brought the couple's dog to the hospital "and words cannot describe the reaction when they saw each other."
A taxi was then arranged to take them to the shop's location.
Duffey said she has been a nurse for 27 years and "I have consequently had several different occasions to assist with unusual circumstances. I love it. No matter what the need, I'll just jump in. It is so very rewarding. It's the best feeling in the world when you can walk away from your job at the end of the day and say to yourself, 'Yes, I made a difference in someone's life today.' There is just no better feeling."
"It's good karma when you help others," she added. "And we all should practice treating each other well and doing what is right. Always."
From his home in Spring Hill, Fla., Schrefler recently told Meritus staff members that the couple is doing fine. They've also bought a new, larger RV.
And although he's thankful for the care and hospitality he received at Meritus, he doesn't plan on driving through Hagerstown any time soon.
"We're only going to go as far as Orlando this time," he said.
Protect yourself from carbon monoxide
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas produced whenever organic or carbon-containing substances burn.
When fuel-burning devices are improperly used, poorly vented or malfunction, they can fill the air in an enclosed space with deadly gases. A person breathing this air can be overcome before any symptoms are noticed.
Here are recommendations from the Environmental Protection Agency, Indoors Environ Division.
- Have any fuel-burning appliance, including oil and gas furnaces, gas water heaters, gas ranges and ovens, gas dryers, gas or kerosene heaters, fireplaces and wood stoves inspected by a trained professional at the beginning of every heating season. Make certain that the flues and chimneys are connected, in good condition and not blocked.
- Choose appliances that vent their fumes to the outside whenever possible, have them properly installed and maintain them according to manufacturers' instructions.
- Don't idle the car in a garage, even if the garage door to the outside is open. Fumes can build up very quickly in both the garage and living area of your home.
- Don't use a gas oven to heat your home, even for a short time.
- Don't ever use a charcoal grill indoors, even in a fireplace.
- Don't sleep in any room with an unvented gas or kerosene space heater.
- Don't use any gasoline-powered engines (mowers, weed trimmers, snow blowers, chain saws or generators) in enclosed spaces.
- Don't ignore symptoms, particularly if more than one person is feeling them. You could lose consciousness and die if you do nothing. Symptoms can include headaches, nausea, weakness, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, confusion, impaired vision and lack of coordination and shortness of breath.
If you have a poisoning emergency, immediately call 911.
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