The sun streamed into the bedroom where Faith Vigil was waking up with her 11-year-old daughter at her side.
She felt the warmth on her face, looked over to see her daughter peacefully breathing and felt a deep sense of relief simply to be awake.
“I felt immense gratitude,” Vigil said. “I was so grateful to wake up with my daughter.”
A day earlier, carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty furnace nearly killed Vigil’s entire family.
One by one on New Year’s Day, Vigil, her husband, Paul Schreder, their son, Will, 14, and daughter, Mila, had woken up feeling lousy with pounding headaches and nausea.
One of the dogs, a golden retriever named Zeb, was pacing and whimpering.
Something clearly was wrong.
‘We’ve got to get out of here’
At first, Vigil and Schreder thought they might have the flu. Last winter, three family members had gotten it within hours of one another. Or maybe it was food poisoning from a New Year’s Eve party the night before.
But, as family members curled up under blankets on the sectional in their family room, Vigil, who is a high school teacher, fought through the haze and pain in her head and had the presence of mind to do a little research.
She checked on her phone for symptoms for this year’s flu strain. No. They’d have fevers, coughs and sore throats. She texted her friend who hosted the gathering the night before. Was anyone sick at their house? No.
Then, out of nowhere, Vigil thought to look up carbon monoxide poisoning.
The search results were stunning and matched their symptoms exactly.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Vigil told her husband and kids.
Each scrambled to get dressed. Vigil and Schreder loaded the kids and both dogs into their truck and started driving.
At first, they considered going to Vigil’s parents’ home. Then, Vigil realized they needed medical attention.
So, the family headed to the freestanding ER three minutes from their home in the Tallyn’s Reach area of Aurora. They walked in to the UCHealth Emergency Room – Smoky Hill and Vigil told the receptionist, “I know this is going to sound crazy, but I’m pretty sure my whole family has carbon monoxide poisoning.”
What is a freestanding ER?
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Dr. Patricia VanDevander was on duty. She immediately checked each member of the family and recognized that Vigil was the opposite of crazy. She was a hero.
“I totally credit this mother with saving all of them by getting prompt treatment,” said VanDevander.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of her for putting things together so quickly and getting them all in so quickly. That was just extraordinary,” said VanDevander, who has been practicing emergency medicine for 26 years and never has had an entire family walk in with such an accurate self-diagnosis of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Carbon monoxide is extremely dangerous because poisoning victims often fall asleep and never wake up.
VanDevander said this case is a perfect example of a key lesson for all doctors: “Listen to your patients.”
That’s exactly what she and her team did. They took blood samples from all four family members and immediately started them on treatments of high-flow oxygen by masks.
The blood samples later showed exactly what both Vigil and VanDevander suspected: high levels of what’s called carboxyhemoglobin. For non-smokers, these levels should be no higher than 3 percent.
Schreder had the highest levels in the family: 33 percent, while Vigil’s test results showed 26 percent and both kids were at 23 percent.
The treatment is relatively simple, but requires patience: sustained doses of oxygen over several hours.
VanDevander credited both Will and Mila with being great patients. Each kept oxygen masks on for about four hours straight.
“They were fantastic,” VanDevander said. “Some kids can be really agitated, but they were great. The mask covers the mouth and nose and it has a bag underneath. It can be uncomfortable, but the only time the kids took the masks off was when we gave them something to eat.”
Their parents, meanwhile, kept the masks on between calls to Aurora Fire Rescue and Vigil’s dad, who worked on finding a furnace expert on a holiday to try to determine the cause of the carbon monoxide leak.
‘This family is extremely lucky’
Aurora Fire Battalion Chief Steven Wright was on duty when the call came in about a carbon monoxide leak at the Tallyn’s Reach home.
Vigil’s dad had reached a furnace expert, but after getting an initial reading of high carbon monoxide levels outside, the worker wouldn’t step foot in the house. He knew it was too dangerous, so he called Aurora Fire.
Wright and a team of ten firefighters responded. They had to suit up with masks and oxygen tanks to safely enter the home.
Protect your home from carbon monoxide poisoning – Tips from Aurora Fire Battalion Chief Steven Wright
- Install detectors outside of each bedroom and test the batteries every month. (Steam from showers can trigger false alarms, so Wright said it’s better to mount detectors away from bathrooms.)
- Get furnaces and gas appliances inspected regularly, especially after a new construction or remodeling.
- Never use charcoal grills or generators to generate heat in a closed space.
- Trust your gut. When in doubt, get out. If your carbon monoxide detector is going off or you feel sick, leave the home immediately and call 911.
Inside, they found levels of carbon monoxide from the basement all the way up to the second story that measured at 500 parts per million. Anything over 35 parts per million is considered poisonous and requires rescue works to wear oxygen masks.
“These levels were extremely high,” Wright said. “A healthy adult could endure that for about 45 minutes before they’d go unconscious. This family is extremely lucky.”
Wright said Vigil and Schreder responded perfectly. He said they paid attention to the messages their bodies were sending them: “Something’s wrong. Stay awake. Get out.”
“If you succumb to the carbon monoxide and go to sleep, you’re never going to wake up,” Wright said.
The repairman later found that the furnace was not vented properly. After the leak, they are taking no chances. They installed a new furnace and air conditioning unit along with six carbon monoxide detectors throughout the house.
And Vigil has been notifying all their neighbors because homes older than 2009 were not required to have carbon monoxide detectors. A law passed that year requires all new homes, rentals and properties for sale to have carbon monoxide detectors. Vigil and Schreder previously had bought detectors, but like many people, hadn’t recently checked on the batteries.
Wright said carbon monoxide poisoning can occur in any home – new or old – and is common when there’s been recent construction work, especially roofing. Sometimes pounding on the roof or elsewhere in a home can jostle furnace vents that must lead outside.
Other people suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning when they warm up cars in garages or use gas appliance, heaters or generators in closed spaces. For prevention tips from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, click here.
“We don’t respect carbon monoxide enough because it’s silent and invisible. When a kitchen fills with smoke, you know you’re in a harmful environment,” Wright said. “Monitors are the best way to go.”
Personalized care at a neighborhood ER
The great news for Vigil, Schreder and the kids is that they should not face any long-term health effects from their carbon monoxide exposure.
Their doctors say that’s because they sought help right away.
VanDevander credits her team, too, with providing excellent care. The Smoky Hill ER is a stand-alone neighborhood facility. Because it’s relatively small, the ER normally doesn’t keep large supplies of oxygen on hand. But VanDevander wanted to keep all the family members together and avoid transferring them to separate hospitals for adults and children. So, a nurse named Karen Nerger came in on her day off and quickly arranged for the delivery of two additional large tanks of oxygen. The ER also doesn’t have a cafeteria, so Nerger took orders from the family members and ran to a nearby Panera to buy lunch for them. A regional nurse manager, Veronica McKim, also came in to help.
“We provide more personalized care,” VanDevander said of the freestanding ER. “We don’t replace a hospital ER. But, because we’re in a suburban area, we provide convenient and sometimes more rapid service. We can get people into the system exactly where they belong.”
Freestanding ERs are for true emergencies, VanDevander emphasized.
“And this was a true emergency. We’re all board-certified emergency medicine physicians. You can’t be a new graduate. You have to have experience,” VanDevander said.
You do ‘about 5,000 things’ to keep kids healthy, but we don’t think of carbon monoxide
Vigil and Schreder may never know for sure exactly when the furnace vent stopped working.
The family had been out of town after Christmas and everyone returned on Dec. 30.
After the neighbor’s party, everyone returned home and went to bed by about 11 p.m.
Schreder woke first at about 5 a.m. and was feeling lousy. He went down to the couch. Vigil had a headache and felt sick too. She tried to go back to sleep. Then Mila came in and complained of similar symptoms. She crawled into bed with her mom. Will soon joined them and said it felt like “his heart was pounding in his head.”
Even the dogs were out of sorts.
“My retriever seemed super nervous, but I didn’t connect the dots right away,” Vigil said.
Fortunately, the dogs, Zeb, the retriever, and a black lab named Jackson, ended up being just fine as well.
Thankfully, Vigil and Schreder brought the dogs with them when they left their home. They stayed in the truck for a while, then a neighbor came and took the dogs to her house while the family members did their oxygen treatments.
Vigil said when she spoke to the fire chief and learned how high the carbon monoxide levels were throughout the house, the close call the family suffered really hit her.
“It was so scary,” she said.
Vigil always has been vigilant about stimulating the kids’ brains and keeping them safe. Back when she was pregnant, she read to her babies in her belly. She was careful about protecting their ears from loud sounds and feeding them healthy foods.
“You do about 5,000 things to keep them healthy,” she said. “But I never thought about carbon monoxide.”
‘Thank you, mom!’
Vigil and Schreder’s furnace has been inspected at least three times, but no one ever noticed that the exhaust pipe was not properly glued to the furnace.
The couple now is urging everyone they know to get carbon monoxide detectors and test them regularly.
As for the help they got, Vigil said the ER team was great.
“They were awesome. Because it was smaller, it felt like we got better treatment. It wasn’t a massive ER. They gave us New Year’s Eve glasses and they fed us. Then, the next day, they called us a few times to make sure we were OK. We were very lucky,” Vigil said. “I’m so grateful that I got a second chance to fix this.”
Schreder credits his wife with getting the family out to safety.
“My inclination was to give the kids medicine and put them to sleep,” he said. “Faith is definitely our hero,” he said.
Will chimed with some praise too: “Thank you, mom!”