Generator Wisdom: One Family’s Survival of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
During the ice storm last winter, my family nearly died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator. My parents drove up from Bartlesville to loan us their generator, which we put it in the garage so it wouldn’t be stolen. My husband cracked the garage door a foot or two and completely opened the side door in the garage leading outdoors.
It seemed like a good plan. It was well vented and we finally had some electricity. We excitedly plugged in the TV, kept the fire going and snuggled under toasty electric blankets for the night. Unfortunately, the fumes from the generator still leaked into our house and up through the vents. That night, while we slept, we were all breathing in carbon monoxide.
I woke up with the Mother of all headaches. My entire head was in extreme pain. My 8-year-old daughter, who had been sleeping by the fireplace, woke up when I did. She grabbed her head, moaning, covered her ears, and passed out. I instantly knew something was very wrong and the thought, “We’re poisoned,” shouted in my head.
Although I knew exactly what was wrong, my brain couldn’t seem to stay with the thought long enough to know what to do. I stood up and fell back down. I was so dizzy I couldn’t even walk. I shook my 2-year-old son who was lying next to me to make sure he was still alive. He mumbled something and went back to oblivion.
I also had a one-year-old who was in her bedroom with a heating pad in her crib. I was desperate to get back there and check on her. I dizzily stood and tried to walk, gripping the wall, but I was gasping so hard and felt so sick to my stomach that I knew I had to turn around and go out the back door for air.
When you’re told carbon monoxide makes a person disoriented, you really have no idea. I knew we were poisoned, but my brain couldn’t make it to the next coherent thought, which was to get us all out of the house. I managed to get out, collapsing on the back step and inhaling gulps of fresh air. About a minute later, I went back in and was halfway to the baby’s room when I was overcome with nausea. I turned and stumbled into the bathroom.
As I was vomiting, my brain was screaming, “You’re poisoned.” I then began to think, “No we’re not. It’s just a stomach bug. Go back to sleep.” My mind was a muddled mess going back and forth between both thoughts.
The conversations in my head were, “You’re just sick to your stomach. You don’t call 911 over that. Look, the kids are still sleeping, just get some rest while you can.” Then my brain would argue back with, “You’re poisoned! Call 911 now!”
Worst of all, as I sat on the couch, eyes glazed over, staring emotionlessly at my children, I began to think, “So this is what it looks like when you die from this. Huh. Well, at least we’ll all go to heaven together.”
That horrible thought was in my mind as I watched my daughter sit up again on the fireplace and cry out, “Mommy, my head really hurts!” She passed out again. I knew that was not something a mother with merely an upset stomach thought.
I quickly found my cell phone next to me, called my mom and told her something was wrong with us. She yelled at me to call 911 and made me repeat it back to her. I did, and Tulsa’s best firemen came and saved us. My husband made it home minutes before them and got us outside.
The firemen put us into an ambulance where medics gave us oxygen and transported my three children and myself to the hospital. There, we went through about four tanks of oxygen, x-rays, IV’s and blood draws.
This isn’t an easy memory to revisit, but knowing the symptoms of carbon monoxide can help you recognize it for what it is and get out of the situation faster than we did.
Today, my children are doing fabulously well. I want to give a very heartfelt thank you to the firemen who came to our house that morning.
The following are tips from the EPA on how to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning:
DO have your fuel-burning appliances including oil and gas furnaces, gas water heaters, gas ranges and ovens, gas dryers, gas or kerosene space 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.
DO choose appliances that vent their fumes to the outside whenever possible, have them properly installed, and maintain them according to manufacturers’ instructions.
DO read and follow all of the instructions that accompany any fuel-burning device. If you cannot avoid using an unvented gas or kerosene space heater, carefully follow the cautions that come with the device. Use the proper fuel and keep doors to the rest of the house open. Crack a window to ensure enough air for ventilation and proper fuel-burning.
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 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, small engines, or generators) in enclosed spaces.
DON’T ignore symptoms of CO poisoning, such as dizziness or nausea, particularly if more than one person is feeling them. You could lose consciousness and die if you do nothing.