Carbon monoxide poisoning
Andra Gustin said she and her parents are
lucky to be alive after being exposed to carbon monoxide the evening of Sept. 1.
The three felt no symptoms when they went to sleep around 9:30 p.m. inside a furnished shop next to her parent’s home in Iowa, La. Since Hurricane Laura’s landfall Aug. 27, the shop has been powered by a generator, located at the time in a nearby carport.
Around 2 a.m., Gustin said she awoke with
an intense headache, slipping in and out of consciousness while her parents slept. She passed out in the bathroom while trying to find headache medicine and woke up on the floor.
“I knew that I wasn’t OK,” she said. “I’m
not a person who passes out easily. I’m a tough lady … so that’s really weird to happen to me.”
Gustin fainted again while trying to walk
to her parents' room. The sound of her body hitting the floor woke her father. Had her father not heard the fall, Gustin said they may have all died. 
“The next thing I know, he was leaning
over me and shaking me,” she said.
Gustin said her mother, who had also passed out that night but didn’t mention it, suspected they had carbon monoxide poisoning and told them to get outside.
“I had to crawl to get out,” Gustin said.
“As soon as Dad got out, he couldn’t even stand,” she said. “He went to the generator and turned it off. He came back and fell on the ground.”
Gustin eventually found cell phone service
and called Amanda Heilman, the wife of Gustin’s sister, Ameila. Ameila, who lives in Austin, Texas, dialed 911. The local fire department and emergency medical technicians arrived and took Gustin to an emergency room at a Lake Charles hospital, where she spent
several hours before feeling well enough to return home.
“I feel like I am probably one of the luckiest people,” she said. “There are so many factors that could’ve changed this. I just feel very lucky we did wake up. It’s really scary.”
 
“We thought it would
be a good area”
 
As of Sept. 4, the Louisiana Department
of Health reported more than 20 deaths in Louisiana related to Hurricane Laura. Nine were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from generators.
Gustin said the generator-powered shop
is the only place to cool off after long days in the relentless heat clearing storm debris and repairing damaged roofs.
Gustin’s home is still standing, but it
needs a new roof and ceilings in the kitchen, living and dining rooms. The windows are sealed shut, preventing a window air conditioner from being installed in the home.
Gustin said her parent’s home had a roof
leak, forcing them to spend nights in the shop. She referred to it as a “man cave,” equipped with a full bath and kitchen. 
“My parents are sleeping on a futon, and
I’m sleeping on a mattress on the floor,” she said.
The generator was originally located in
a high traffic area, causing them to breathe in fumes every time they walked by it. On the day of the incident, Gustin said her father decided to move the generator over to the other side of the shop, away from the walking area and out of reach from potential thieves.
“We thought it would be a good area; it’s
open and ventilated, just covered,” she said. “It’s next to the shop, but outside. It’s not even sharing a wall with it. We ate dinner in the shop and everything.”
Gustin described her headache as if “someone was squeezing my brain with pliers.” She said she doesn’t know how long she was in bed before getting up to find medicine.
Initially, Gustin attributed her symptoms
to heat exposure while working on her roof that day.
“I just felt like I was dehydrated, maybe
a touch of heat stroke,” she said. “I didn’t think too much about it.”
Once out of the home, Gustin said she never thought to dial 911.
“I thought, ‘They have too much to handle,’ ” she said. “I searched Google for what to do when someone has carbon monoxide poisoning, but there was no service. I was in and out of consciousness, just laying on the grass.”
Gustin said she felt worse than her parents did because she was exposed to more carbon monoxide while on the floor of the bathroom. Her parents declined going to the emergency room.
 
“Like a really bad hangover”
 
Gustin said it took roughly 48 hours after
being exposed to carbon monoxide before she felt normal again.
“It feels like a really bad hangover,”
she said. 
The incident made an already stressful
time even more challenging, Gustin said. A single mother, Gustin said her three children, Iry, 12, Tage, 8, and Lue, 4, were staying at their grandparent’s home in Lafayette when the incident occurred.
“It made me very scared to bring my kids back home,” she said.
Gustin suspects carbon monoxide made its way through a hole that was drilled in the wall of the shop to allow the extension cord to reach the generator outside.
“We’re very confused on how it got in at
all,” she said. “There are no vents or window units on that side (of the shop.)”
Gustin said the generator has since been
moved to the other side of the house and is “a lot more out in the open.” After the incident, the family also purchased battery-operated carbon monoxide detectors.
Days before the incident, Gustin said she
went to see her parents, who had experienced slight nausea and vomiting. She said her parents exposed themselves to carbon monoxide every time they used a door that was closest to where the generator was located at the time.
Gustin said she now notices households
with generators placed too close to their homes, or in garages. She said she understands people wanting to keep generators secure from thieves or not having a long enough extension cord.
 
Educating others
 
Gustin said her sisters, Amanda and Amelia, collected donations to help victims of Hurricane Laura recover. She has used part of that money to buy carbon monoxide detectors and distribute them to local residents.
“We just decided this is the biggest need,
where most people are dying,” she said. “I’m telling families, ‘If you want to have a (generator) near a garage, at least take this monitor.’
Gustin said stores that sell generators
should have battery-operated carbon monoxide detectors next to them.
“They’re on opposite ends of the store,”
she said of one business.
Despite the near-fatal incident, Gustin
said she feels it happened for a reason.
“I see many friends whose homes and businesses are gone,” she said. “I thought, this is how you’re supposed to help. I hadn’t thought of (carbon monoxide poisoning) one time before it happened. I’m hoping our story will prevent this from happening to other families.”
Gustin said little details that may be
overlooked when setting up a generator could be dangerous or fatal.
“You have windows open because it’s hot.
All it takes is for the wind to change direction, and people can literally be breathing in carbon monoxide,” she said.
Residents should take caution when using
generators, especially those living in small apartments, Gustin said.
“Just because it’s outside doesn't make
it safe,” she said. “Move it as far away from your house as you can.”
 
Editor’s note: Gustin’s parents chose not to be named in the article.

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