They are symptoms most of us have experienced. Fatigue? We chalk it up to skimping on sleep. We forget where we put our car keys and call it a sign of age. Anxiety — one too many things on the to-do list. Hardly ever do we stop and think these symptoms all have one cause. Rarely do we think they are signs of sickness.
On Thursday evening, as part of the Vineyard Haven Library lecture series, doctor Lisa Nagy of Vineyard Haven spoke to a small audience about her own experience with these symptoms and her struggle with a diagnosis that not only was she ill, but it was her home that was making her so.
Dr. Nagy lived in Los Angeles, Calif., where she was working as an emergency room doctor when she began to develop a number of symptoms that left her confused, depressed and unable to work. “I had muscle weakness, I couldn’t handle any stress, I was anxious,” she said from the stage of the Katharine Cornell Theatre Thursday night. She developed an intolerance of perfumes and fluorescent lights. Her body weight dropped by 30 pounds, her IQ by 60 points. “I was like the walking dead,” she said.
For two years, during which time she moved out of her house and stopped working, Dr. Nagy struggled to get a diagnosis. Doctors attributed her symptoms to everything from hysteria — she was committed to a hospital psychiatric ward — to chronic illness. “I was abandoned by my own profession,” she said. Finally, she found a doctor in Dallas, Texas, who diagnosed her with environmental illness. The mold in her home had literally poisoned her, she said, leaving her hypersensitive to her surroundings.
To start down the path to recovery, Dr. Nagy cut out of her life triggers to the symptoms which had left her, in her words, disabled. “I lived in a bubble for three years,” she said. “No cities, no stores, no hotels, no airplanes.” Dr. Nagy relocated to Martha’s Vineyard where she finally found partial recovery. Even today, however, she cannot wear scented hand lotion or go for walks in the woods in the winter — the fumes from wood stoves aggravate her symptoms.
The experience left her depleted, but with the resolve to educate others about environmental illness and help those already affected. From the Vineyard, Dr. Nagy now advises patients with similar symptoms and has spent much of the fall spreading her message. “The main thing is finding the cause and getting the patient away from the cause,” she said.
Dr. Nagy on Thursday said environmental illness mildly affects 74 million people in the United States. Eighty per cent of sufferers are women and most are not aware they are suffering, she said. The medical profession has yet to fully acknowledge the severity of the illness.
Causes of environmental illness can range from exposure to pesticides or chemicals as common as the ink in a printer. The primary cause, and one which runs rampant on this Island, is mold, said Dr. Nagy, leaving many Islanders ill. A few came Thursday to speak of their experiences.
Donald Cronig, a Vineyard home inspector, said after years of working in moldy homes, basements and crawl spaces, he can no longer tolerate scented products. “I meet people every day who are affected,” he said. Arabella Hall said she began developing symptoms after moving into a new home. She went through rounds of allergy tests, all of which revealed nothing. It was not until a blood test showed extreme high counts of toxic mold in her blood stream that Mrs. Hall knocked down a wall of her home to find an infestation of black mold. “We want to believe the environment we live in and the homes we live in are healthy,” she said.
To ward off mold and avoid developing serious symptoms, Dr. Nagy recommended a slew of measures including taking nutritional supplements, using non toxic cleaning supplies, ridding a bedroom of newspapers and books and assessing the mold levels in a home with a mold plate. She encouraged those gathered to begin sharing their stories and talking about the illness with each other and with members of the medical community.
“We shouldn’t be embarrassed to admit it,” she said. “On a scale of one to ten, no one is a zero when dealing with environmental illness.”