Our house was killing us

When Sally and her family returned from a holiday feeling under the weather, they had no idea of the horror to come

Sally Vischi, Jandakot, WA

Stumbling into the kitchen, I reached out for the counter to hold myself up. My head was pounding and I felt so woozy I could barely open my eyes.

‘I’m going to have to lie down and sleep,’ I told my husband Mauro, then 52. I’d been suffering from really painful headaches for a few months. Not that I was surprised. The past year hadn’t been easy for any of us.

Our son Lucas, then 11, had been diagnosed with cancer and needed radical surgery to remove a tumour from his eye. As a result he’d lost his left eye and much of the skin tissue around it. Our whole family had been affected by the ordeal – including our daughter, Ella, then nine.

Putting my headaches down to anxiety caused by stress, I vowed to soldier on.At least we were going away to recuperate. The children’s charity Make A Wish had organised a trip for the family to Disneyland in LA. It’s just what we need, I thought.

And I was right. After one week in the States, I felt like a new woman. The headaches and nausea had stopped. In fact, the whole family looked so much healthier.

Mauro, Lucas, Ella and me.

Coming home in mid-June, there was a chill in the air, so I popped on the gas heater to keep the house warm.

But a few days later, I got that familiar twinge. My head was hurting again, worse than ever. Only this time, Mauro and the kids were feeling unwell too.

‘We’re going to see the doctor,’ I said, bundling us all up to leave the warmth of the house.

‘It sounds like you’ve all picked up a bug overseas,’ he told us. ‘Take paracetamol and drink plenty of water.’

It made sense. It’s probably just a case of the flu, I thought.

Fortunately, the symptoms lessened a little in the kids, but over the next couple of months Mauro and I still felt under the weather.

‘My heart feels like it’s constantly pounding out of my chest,’ Mauro told me, worried.

He’d had a heart attack in 2008, so I was concerned too. Opening all the windows during the day, I tried to get fresh air circulating through the house, thinking it would be good for us. Little did I know that act would save our lives…

A month later, we’d been watching TV together as a family when the kids went to bed at around 8.30pm.It was a cold night and we had the gas heater on in the open-plan living area. At 11pm I could feel one of my headaches returning. ‘I need to lie down,’ I told Mauro, wobbling towards our bedroom.

But this time, something was different. I started to feel like I might not make it. Something isn’t right, I thought before the world turned black. A couple of hours must have passed before I woke up again, half slumped on the bed with my feet on the floor.

Wanting to get to Mauro, I tried to walk. But I couldn’t move. Then I tried to scream. Not a sound came out of my mouth…

Suddenly there was an almighty noise from Ella’s room.

‘Mummy, Daddy, I can’t breathe!’ she cried. Her cries filled me with a sudden determination and somehow I inched my way down the hall towards her.

I could see Mauro trying to pull her out of bed. But my mind was all confused. All I could think about was curling up and going to sleep.

‘She’s going to be sick. We need to get her to the bathroom,’ said my hubby.

It was clear he wasn’t well either, but somehow he found the strength to carry our little girl to the end of the hall, while I staggered behind. In the bathroom, Ella slumped to the floor and passed out. I did the same.

I vaguely remember coming round a few minutes later to see her looking at me with glazed eyes. Mauro was trying to slap me awake.

‘Call the neighbours for help,’ I managed to mutter before losing consciousness again.

Mauro crawled to the living room to get his mobile phone to call Mark and Pauline from next door. Then he phoned for an ambulance. What happened next is a blur.

At 3am, Mark and Pauline rushed over, closely followed by the paramedics and the fire brigade. Pauline asked the firies if they had anything that might detect a gas leak, and I’m so glad she did. As soon as they approached the front door, their gas monitor started beeping. Carbon monoxide, an odourless gas, had been detected in dangerous quantities.

It wasn’t the flu we’d been suffering from. We were being poisoned in our own home. For hours we’d been slowly dying…

The whole family was rushed to hospital, where we were put in a special decompression chamber to decrease the amount of carbon monoxide in our blood. Fortunately, as time went on we recovered, and little Lucas kept our spirits up by telling stories and making us laugh. I shivered when I thought of the close call we’d had.

In the compession chamber.

It turned out our heater had been leaking carbon monoxide for some time. Although I kept the heater clean, we’d never had it serviced in the 10 years we’d been there. That was a mistake – one I’d never make again – and we’ve since had the gas heater removed.

Carbon monoxide is colourless, tasteless and has no smell. When your body is poisoned with it, all you want to do is curl up and sleep. But if you do, you may never wake up.

Thankfully, we haven’t had any long-lasting health effects from that terrible night. I feel incredibly blessed. That silent killer could have taken us all.

A silent killer

Carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless tasteless gas. Being exposed to it can greatly diminish your ability to absorb oxygen, leading to serious tissue damage. The six main symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are headaches, dizziness, nausea, breathlessness, collapse and loss of consciousness.

Stay safe by:

Having gas appliances checked by a professional every two years.
Getting an alarm. Carbon monoxide detectors cost around $40.
Recognising the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Making sure no vents on or around the heater are blocked.
Not using outside heating appliances, such as barbecues and garden heaters, indoors.

Originally published in that’s life! Issue 31 – August 2014.

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