Leah’s Story

By Dr. Leah Kelly CCC-SLP, AUD, MM Speech Pathologist, Audiologist, Vocal Specialist

I am a Speech Pathologist, Audiologist and Vocal Specialist. This is the story of how a prolonged toxic chemical exposure almost killed me, led to my diagnoses of MCAS, and completely changed my life.

In January 2019, I was a full-time hospital employee in Pascagoula  Mississippi. On January 25, 2019, the hospital maintenance crew was conducting demolition of the offices adjacent to mine. That day they were removing the sheet rock, electrical wires, drop ceiling tiles and bathroom plumbing that was directly on the other side of my office wall.

Unfortunately, they had not set up the OSHA required barrier between my office and the chemically toxic demolition area. As the crew demolished the wall and ceiling with sledgehammers, and metal cutting saws, they created intense vibrations that shook my office wall and ceiling. At one point, my wall shook so violently that it felt like they were coming through the wall. I knocked on the wall to get them to stop and I yelled, “Hey!!!! Ya’ll don’t accidentally saw through my side of the wall. I am right next to the wall working on the computer.” I hear them laugh and return to the demolition.

The deteriorated 1965 drop ceiling tiles in my office shook and shifted as they vibrated. They sheared across the metal T-bars of the drop ceiling releasing a fine dust and airborne particulates of toxic substances that rained down on me for 6 hours as I worked. It was all over my skin, my hair, my scrubs, and my shoes. As I worked, I swallowed and inhaled the toxic particulates as I talked and breathed.

After 6 hours of the exposure, I began to feel nauseous with a dull headache. An intense burning sensation started under my skin on my back and neck, and I knew that something was very wrong. I ran to my supervisor and asked her to look at my skin to see if I had a rash or something where the burning was the most intense. At the sight of the skin on my back she gasped and said, “Oh my God.” She quickly gave me an incident report and told me to leave the building immediately and go to the emergency room as soon as possible.

My condition quickly spiraled downhill from there. The dose of toxic substances and time of exposure was completely overwhelming my entire body. I was developing a severe systemic inflammation. Breathing became difficult and the intense burning under my skin felt like hot lava. Within the first 24 hours, I used 4 Epi-pens to keep my airway open and I took every medication I could think of to decrease the inflammation. At 47 years old, I had experience dealing with allergies, but I NEVER had to use an Epi-pen (peanut allergy). This was nothing like allergies and I was scared.

I woke up early the next morning in the middle of a dream. In my dream, I was trying to drink some water, but I couldn’t swallow or breathe. I woke up realizing my dream was real. I slammed an Epi-pen injection in my leg and stumbled to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror and I saw a monster. Everything part of my face and my body was swollen and covered with large red raised patches of skin that were tender to the touch and burned and itched deep under the skin.

I called my mother. She took me to the ER where people stared at me and backed away, scared that I was contagious. At the ER, I was only treated with Benadryl IVs and then sent home in the same condition as when I arrived but with instructions to take the prednisone prescription and I should be fine. I was not fine. If I had listened to those instructions, I would be dead!

I contacted my physician ASAP. When he saw me, he was absolutely floored. He had never seen a reaction to anything like I was experiencing. He tried to get me to go to the hospital, but obviously there was no point in going there for treatment. He was very serious and to the point as he gave my mother treatment instructions and warned her that if the severity of the inflammation continued, I would most likely die in my sleep.

My mother monitored me 24/7 and followed my doctor’s intense treatment plan. Orally, he prescribed high dose Prednisone to be taken every 2 hours and added Singulair, Zyrtec and Atarax every 4-6 hours. Topically, he prescribed Triamcinalone cream to be  thickly slathered all over my body every 2-4 hours and for ice packs to be placed on the most painful areas of my skin. I was bedridden for 6 days. On the 6th day, the inflammation had subsided enough for me to force myself out of the bed and crawl to the bathtub.

During those 6 days, I almost died 3 times due to severe inflammation of my airway. Over the next few months, my hair fell out 2 times, my fingernails and toenails were dark yellow, grey lines appeared around new dental bonding that my dentist said indicated toxic levels of lead. I have scars from the sores that were everywhere from the reaction  and my blood gases are completely abnormal requiring supplemental O2 daily, I can’t wear any make-up, and my clothes have to be very soft because my skin is so sensitive. I can’t even go outside (except for Physician’s appointments). The only place that has helped me is the Environmental Center in Dallas.

Before 2019 Exposure to Toxic Chemicals

January 2019 Reaction-Toxic Chemical Exposure

Although 6 months later I was still having problems, I was a single mother and I HAD to go back to work. Since then, I have not been able to work. My physician’s recommendation is that I cannot be in an area near construction, demolition, renovation, or fiberglass materials. Another exposure of any kind will most likely be fatal. My original employer and the 60 other places to which I have applied say that “We cannot meet your environmental restrictions.”

A year after the demolition accident, I continued to have test results indicating that my body remained overloaded with toxic chemicals which were affecting my cognitive function, autonomic nervous system function, lung function, and physical coordination.

Even though I received a judgement requiring the worker’s compensation insurance company to reimburse me for medical services completed and to pay for my medical treatment. Three years later, they have not done either one.

Prior to the demolition accident, I had seasonal allergies which were a nuisance, but easily controlled. Toxic chemical exposure, or poisoning, is a whole different ballgame, in an entirely different universe. It is like an alien that lives inside of me, stretching its tentacles throughout my body, touching, and affecting every organ and disrupting every system of function. Not surprisingly, it has also affected my immune system. My body’s reactivity to everything steadily increased, eventually resulting in an additional diagnosis of MCAS, which translates to more specialized medications, more money, and more unpredictable problems.

My life now in 2023 is completely unrecognizable to me and to anyone who knew me. I earned 3 master’s degrees and a doctorate because all I wanted to do was to help people. I would tell my patients, “I believe in Jesus and Therapy because those are the only things that I know truly work.” I loved my job. I loved my patients. I loved my co-workers. I loved helping patients  return to their life after medical events that left them with physical and mental complications that they thought were impossible to overcome. It gave me joy and purpose.

All of that is gone. Almost all buildings, grocery stores, departments stores, and physician’s offices are chemical sewers. They continue to overuse disinfectants required for COVID, in addition to their normal air fresheners etc. that could very well kill me. So…for the last 3 years, I have stayed in my house. I have 4 huge Austin Air Filters for everything including chemical fumes and a special chemical filter on my AC. I have a home and portable oxygen condensers. I clean with only hydrogen peroxide or dawn, water and baking soda. I still can’t wear make-up or use any personal products with chemicals, and I still wear soft clothing. My skin looks totally different. Between the scars and deep red and purple blood vessel patterns from vascular damage, I look strange. I try to keep a structured daily schedule to keep my sanity. The absolute most challenging change in my life is the isolation. I play music and talk to God a lot….but sometimes it can sneak up on you and attack you from all directions with soul crippling force. Every day is a constant mental battle.

I’m telling my story because I didn’t fully understand the toxic chemical exposure. Of all places, I trusted the hospital to provide a work environment free of toxic construction and demolition areas. When an extension of my short-term disability, “In our reference book, Speech Therapists are not supposed to be exposed to demolition areas.” In OSHA’s report of the situation, they noted all of the regulations that were not followed and admitted that it caused my poisoning and then told the hospital to do better next time.

I wish I could say that I received treatment and that everything is terrific. But this is not a feel good, “glad she got better in the end” story. It is simply…My Story.

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