It seemed like quite the coincidence. Last year, nearly everyone who worked for more than a few hours at the Saint Thomas Employees Credit Union at the old Imperial House Apartment Building became mysteriously ill. Some nursed dull, nagging headaches for months; others couldn't shake a bone-crunching fatigue. At first, they thought one of them caught some sort of viral infection and passed it to everyone else.
Then, one August afternoon, Chloe Nguyen, a petite, 35-year-old employee at the credit union, passed out in her office. When her co-workers found her, she was shaking and seemed to be having a seizure. Her manager, Mary Coleman, took her to the emergency room at Saint Thomas. Nguyen was treated with oxygen and released. Nobody at the hospital really had any answers about what might have happened to her.
At 60, Coleman is the den mother of the credit union's all-female staff. When she returned to her office after Nguyen's trip to the emergency room, she knew she had to figure out, once and for all, what seemed to be plaguing all of them. A few months earlier, Coleman had the building manager clean the air conditioning vent, which removed all sorts of dirt and mold. Still, nobody felt better. When one of the employees talked to the building manager about how they all seemed to be getting sick, he told them they were a bunch of "hysterical women."
Coleman herself had experienced dull headaches for months. At first, she thought it stemmed from recent heart surgery she had at Saint Thomas. But her cardiologist put her through a round of tests and everything turned up fine.
"The longer it went, the worse it got," she says. "I had a few days when I was terribly sick. I had a bad headache, I was sick to my stomach and I felt fatigued."
This went on for months.
So when Coleman returned from the emergency room, she decided to buy a carbon monoxide detector from a nearby hardware store. It cost $39. She set it up in Nguyen's office, and the alarm immediately sounded. The detector registered at the highest level, which was way above the lethal level. The piercing, high-pitched noise of the alarm rattled the building manager, whose office is right next door. He didn't believe what he saw. He re-installed the batteries, but again, the alarm sounded.
"It was shocking," Coleman remembers. "We put up a sign and immediately evacuated everybody out of there."
Later, Coleman and her employees learned for the first time that their office was above a gas-powered water heater located in the building's basement. Apparently, the heater wasn't properly vented, allowing carbon monoxide to creep upstairs. Saint Thomas closed parts of the credit union office for weeks, but according to Coleman, didn't do much more. Coleman says only two people from management, Gordon Peerman and Cindy Wedel, ever displayed any sympathy or concern to her while the rest of hospital leadership never said a word. The hospital didn't offer the employees immediate medical tests, though hospital staff did offer medical advice.
"We were told to get out and get some fresh air," Coleman recalls.
Now, Coleman and five other people who worked inside the credit union have filed a civil lawsuit against Saint Thomas Hospital, claiming that it was negligent in responding to their complaints. The suit, which seeks unspecified damages, claims that the hospital, which has owned the building for decades, was either aware or should have been aware of a possible carbon monoxide leak. At press time, the hospital's attorneys were drafting their response.
"If I had a building and a gas-burning apparatus, I would have a carbon monoxide detector," Coleman says. "I'm amazed that they'd own this kind of apartment building without a safety device."
Chloe Nguyen, the woman who was rushed to the emergency room, has lingering respiratory problems. She usually feels too tired to exercise. Coleman says she still battles fatigue. Another plaintiff, who works in the office two days a week, has complications with a pre-existing asthma condition. Four of the six women are of child-bearing age.
"We're still trying to understand which of their conditions were caused by or exacerbated by the carbon monoxide poisoning," says Chad White, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs.
One former employee of Saint Thomas who knows all of the plaintiffs says that each of them is devoted to the hospital, that they're loyal employees who don't like to make waves. Coleman herself raves about the hospital's cardiac rehabilitation program.
"When they determined what happened and they knew this had gone on for sometime, I felt as if they should have checked on our health a little," Coleman says simply.
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