Monday, February 15, 2016

Twenty Years Ago Today ~ A Tale of Teaching and Toxic Exposure

Fifty years of age may seem to be an advanced age to begin teaching.  It seemed reasonable to me when I took on my new teaching career at the half century mark of my life.  Teaching had been a lifelong dream of mine.  I began college right after high school with the goal of becoming an elementary teacher.  I quit college before I achieved my goal.  Soon I was married.  Then, I was a stay-at-home mother to five children.  After a divorce which left me unprepared for the work world, I took a secretarial job and in time began to work on finishing that college degree.   By the age of forty-five, I had nearly raised five children, and I had completed a bachelor of science degree in  business administration.

The dream to teach had not died as I worked as a secretary and as a bookkeeper.  So, at age forty-eight, I finally went to work on getting the education I needed to teach.  By the time my fiftieth birthday rolled around, I had nearly completed my B.A. In English and was doing my student teaching.  I would soon be endorsed to teach secondary Language Arts.  After graduating Summa Cum Laude in May, 1995, the next hurdle I faced was finding a job.

Feeling quite fit and very healthy, I began my first year of teaching in August, 1995.  I’d been hired to teach seventh grade language arts at Risley Middle School in Pueblo, Colorado.  Risley was in a rough neighborhood.  I was advised by veteran teachers not to smile until after Thanksgiving.  Smiling would label me as a softie.  I was also told never to cry in front of those tough kids.  Many of them were already involved in gangs or in gang behavior.

My classroom was a interior room.  It had no windows.  It had been abandoned for a few years as one of those rooms that was only used when there was a larger enrollment.  In other words, it was a typical room for a newbie teacher.  I hadn’t earned the room with a view yet.  It was stripped bare of teaching supplies.  I couldn’t find a paper clip or a piece of chalk in the place.  I set about setting up as my classroom.  Soon school started, and my students arrived.

In November of 1995, the weather had turned cool.  This meant that the heating and cooling system came on in the building.  I immediately began to develop symptoms of sinus congestion, fatigue, ear pain, and headaches.  I attributed the symptoms to exposure to all those new germs that a first year teacher gets to meet.

Over the Winter Break in December, my symptoms all went away.  They reappeared with a vengeance in January when school stared up again.  I had a terrible burning in my nasal passages, a raspy voice, and a dry, irritating, non-productive cough.  My symptoms always improved over the weekend.

I also had flat red rashes wherever skin was exposed: my arms, my face, my neck, my scalp.  At first, I thought it was a reaction to a new skin cream I was using.  I quit the cream, and my symptoms only got worse.  I applied cortisone cream.  The rash stayed.  It never went away until after I was no longer teaching in that building.  My students also seemed to be sick often and were out of school in droves.  They had bronchitis and pneumonia.

Interestingly, I would notice that every Monday morning when I came into the classroom, there would be yellow dust on the desks at the front of the room, the chalkboard, and on my desk and podium.  I would dust it off and wonder how the chalk dust was getting all over the place.  Then, it dawned on me that I didn't use yellow chalk.  The concentration of dust was greatest under a very large heating duct in the ceiling that was located just over where I would stand to teach.  I was becoming suspicious of the vent.

I was continually so fatigued that I could barely function.  I taught my classes each day, did as much planning and grading as I could, and then would leave the classroom about an hour after school because I could not tolerate the respiratory, and neurological symptoms I would feel as the day progressed.  I would go home, make my way to my bed where I would read until my husband or my daughter Julie would return home for the day.  Julie was in college.  She and Jim did all of the grocery shopping.  Julie did a lot of the cooking, or Jim would bring in dinner many nights because I didn’t have the energy to go out.

On February 12, 1996, I smelled a terrible sewer like smell.  I had actually been smelling this odor off and on since late fall of 1995, but on this day, it was worse.  I also thought the odor sometimes smelt like burnt hair.  The odors seemed to be coming from the heating duct at the front of the room.  On this particular day, my classroom was not fit for instruction, so I took my students from the room and went to the library.  When I returned to the room, a sulfur smell that reminded me of rotten eggs permeated the room.  I thought the air also seemed quite moist.  In fact, I noted that a fog like appearance was on the window of my classroom door when I returned to the room.

When I returned to the room, I felt very light in my head.  I thought I would vomit from the smell and began gagging.  I asked to leave work for the rest of the day.  I called my husband to tell him what had happened.  He told me to go directly to the workman compensation doctor and to file an accident report stating that I had become ill from the air quality in my room.  I did as he suggested.  The doctor noted in his notes, “Exposure to noxious fumes.”  He also stated in the report, “Have air quality checked at work.”

The room was investigated by school district safety staff officials.  No problem was identified

On February 15, 1996, three days after my room was declared safe, I was back teaching in the same classroom.   It was the day after Valentine’s Day.  I still remember the beautiful bouquet of a dozen red roses from my husband that greeted me when I returned to my classroom that Thursday morning.  My room was cheerfully decorated with red hearts, and other decorative touches.  A student had given me a paper rose that she had fashioned for me the day before.  It was attached to my podium.  I sat at my desk to prepare for the day.  On my desk was a photo of all five of my children that was framed in cloth and cardboard picture frame that had been a gift from a parent.

I had been in the first class period of the day for about twenty minutes when I became violently ill.  I rushed to the restroom which was located near the nurse’s office, a short distance from my room.  I hesitated to leave my class unattended, but I had no choice.  I had to get to the restroom - fast!  As I ran past the nurse, I told her I was so ill that I had left my classroom unattended.  I had barely made my way into the restroom when the electrical power to the building went down.  I rushed back to the classroom, pulled my students out into the hall where we had air and some light.  We were in the hall for a very long time.  More than an hour.  My students were complaining of being sick, of having headaches, of being intolerant of the light.

As we sat in the hallway, I began to make notes in my DayTimer.  I was already keeping notes on the fluctuations in the heat of the building.  At times, it was intolerably hot.  I had been noting my symptoms at work for several months.  As I sat on that hallway floor, still sick and dizzy, I was recording the day’s event when a man walked by.  He appeared to be a maintenance worker.  I’d never seen him before.  He was dressed in overalls and a work shirt.  He was carrying a beaker like container that had some murky looking liquid in it.  He had a towel-like rag draped over his arm. He said to me as he passed by, “The electrical power should be back on soon.”  I describe the man in my DayTimer, and wrote, “Who is that guy?  Why is he in the building?  What is that awful looking liquid in his beaker?”

When the power went back on, an announcement went over the P.A. saying, “Students we will now go to second period.”  My first class period students departed. I entered my classroom, and soon, my second period students arrived.  I noticed with shock that the dozen red roses on my desk were now all drooping and dying.  They had been beautiful a few hours before.  They had plenty of water.  The paper rose was also wilted looking and no longer standing upright.  The picture frame separated where the frame was glued to the backing.

I picked up my grade book and proceeded to my podium so I could take roll.  I couldn’t read the page.  Not only that, I couldn’t form words.  My tongue felt swollen and I had “cotton mouth.”  I was slurring my speech badly, was confused, and I thought I was going black out.  A student asked with alarm in her voice, “Mrs. Wessely, what is wrong with you?”

I answered with a question, “Are you students ok?  How do you feel?”  This same student answered with, “I have a headache.  I got it when I walked in your room.  My mouth feels funny.  I think I’m going to be sick.”  I responded with, “Do you have a metallic taste in your mouth?  Do you feel like you have cotton in your mouth.”  A resounding “yes” from the students came back to me.

I walked over to the phone on the wall and called the school nurse.  “Come and get me.  I’m going down.  I’m very sick and about to black out.  My students are also sick.”  She was there in just a few minutes.  She led us out of the room and took us to the gymnasium with instructions to “call the health department.”

Most in the school personnel  thought I was crazy, but other teachers were also having significant problems.  The custodian would make a show of telling me the room was just fine and not too hot.  I heard through the grapevine that I was a menopausal hysteric.

On February 15th, just three days after my room had been declared “fine” the health department official came out to the school and entered my classroom.  She promptly got sick.  My room was closed down with a sign that said, “DO NOT ENTER.”  She and I would meet over the next months at the work comp office.  I still remember the union president saying to me in a somewhat mocking voice, “Sally, you have been vindicated.  The health department employee got sick in your classroom.” I never taught in that classroom again.

Another specialist from the health department was called in.  He interviewed me and noted I was confused and slurring my speech.  He asked a fellow teacher friend if I often drank on the job. 
One month later, the entire school was closed down.  We were not allowed to take our textbooks, our grade books, or any other item from our classrooms.  We completed the year in three different locations.  The school was gutted and the heating and cooling system was revamped.  I think it would be conservative to say that millions of dollars in law suits, doctor bills, and reconstruction cost to the school would be spent over years to follow.  I guess I wasn’t crazy after all.

As a teacher in the State of Colorado, I could not sue my employer no matter negligent their actions might have been.  There were lawsuits in this matter where I was a plaintiff and where I was a witness.  Many called me the “whistle blower.”  That title was bestowed upon me when I first went to the work comp doctor.  He told me he wouldn’t go back in the classroom without a canary on his shoulder.

What was I exposed to?  The doctor’s report reads:  

Documented exposures in the building include high level biocide and fungicide
exporters.  These include: Diamet, 2-mercapatobenzothiazole, (2-MBT), both of
which are known sensitizers, as well as polyacrylic acid copolymer, polyethylene
dichloride, and irritants potassium hydroxide, sodium hydroxide, and phosphoric
acid.  The other concern in this building is potential bioaerosol exposures related to
the use of evaporative cooling, and duct board duct work.  

My Medical Records
from the Chemical Exposure

My workman comp medical file is nearly six and one half inches thick.  I have another equally thick file from attorneys.  In the next fifteen years before my file was closed out, I would see nineteen different doctors that were related to the injury in one way or the other.  I went through three workman comp attorneys because they kept retiring.

  A handful of doctors, three to be exact, believed me when I first started linking symptoms with my environment.  They were my first work comp doctor whom I saw on February 12, 1996.  He told me to put a canary on my shoulder when I returned to my classroom.  He was serious.  The other was my internist.  He told me to get out of town to get a good evaluation.  He was right. I insisted and was finally able to be sent to my wonderful doctor at National Jewish Health.  She is still my doctor. 

At the end of the school year, my contract was not renewed by the school district.  My passion to teach was not dampened by my first year of teaching when I suffered a terrible chemical exposure.  I finished the year as a very sick woman, but I was determined to find another teaching job. 

I am proud to note that I never cried.  The kids knew I was tough and that I would stand up for them and look out for their best interests.

The next school year, I was hired to teach English and English as a Second Language at the high school level.  I went on to earn a M.A. in Teaching English as a Second Language.  Eight years later, I left the classroom and ended my career by writing curriculum and developing a program where teachers could earn an endorsement in Teaching the Linguistically Different (ESL) at Colorado State University-Pueblo.  I also taught future teachers of ESL and Secondary English at CSU-P.  I learned a lot my first year of teaching.  Mostly, I learned that I love to teach and nothing would stop me from pursuing my chosen career.  


I’ve needed to write this account for a very long time.*  Many of the details of the initial exposure are fresh in my mind.  It took me years to get over the emotional effects of learning I was teaching in a very unsafe environment.  I believe I carry the physical effects of the chemical exposure in my body today.  I’ve never again been healthy like I was twenty years ago.  The doctor’s notes, the legal papers, tell the tale.  If they weren’t in my possession, sometime I wonder if even I would believe this story of my first year of teaching.  

* I wrote about my journey to becoming a teacher here:  Time in the classroom: Becoming a teacher. I promised I would write about my memorable first year of teaching.  I finally did.