Poor ventilation in the Shadle Park High School gymnasium is being blamed for jeopardizing the health of teachers and students.
Linda Sheridan, a respected teacher and coach, is convinced the gym’s air has exposed her to a serious illness - possibly Legionnaires’ disease.
Sheridan says she’s the first to become seriously ill because she spent more time in the North Side building than anyone else - all day as a physical education teacher and several hours every afternoon as a girls volleyball and basketball coach.
“I’m kind of the canary in the coal mine,” says Sheridan, 48.
Sheridan filed a complaint March 8 with the state Department of Labor and Industries. After reviewing the complaint, air-quality officials say there’s reason to be concerned.
“We do believe there is a valid complaint there,” says agency spokesman Steve Valandra. “There could be exposure to some industrial-type diseases.”
But Spokane School District 81 officials don’t know if there’s a problem. Air quality is checked only if a formal complaint is filed with the district, and Sheridan waited until Friday to take that step.
“We stand by ready to investigate a complaint,” says Joe Madsen, school district safety supervisor. “We will respond as fast as humanly possible. If we thought that type of disease (Legionnaires’) was present, we would be extremely careful.”
In mid-February, Sheridan told Shadle Park Principal Mike Dunn about her symptoms. Dunn relayed the teacher’s concerns to Madsen.
To Sheridan’s surprise, that wasn’t enough to spark an investigation. District policy requires a written complaint before an investigation can begin.
Labor and Industries officials in Spokane say they will ask the school district to investigate, probably in a few days.
In her complaint, Sheridan questions the district’s move to a cost-cutting, energy-saving program several years ago that put the gym’s air-circulation system on remote control.
She wonders why she felt only warm air from vents and fears air in the school gym is unhealthy because it is recycled.
But district facilities director Dick Laughbon says the amount of fresh air entering the building is adequate and didn’t change under the energy-saving program.
Two huge fans are mounted on the gym roof. One is always on. The other is controlled by a computerized sensor that activates the fan when fresh air is needed, Laughbon says.
All Spokane schools - and most office buildings - use recycled air in very cold weather. Heating fresh air in temperatures below 20 degrees is too expensive, school administrators say.
In early February, Dr. Tim Chestnut diagnosed Sheridan as having atypical pneumonia, possibly related to Legionnaires’ disease. Presence of the deadly bacteria could not be confirmed because Sheridan’s tissue was inundated with antibiotics, the result of four months of serious illness.
Word of the diagnosis quickly spread among educators and parents of Shadle Park students.
Sheridan says at least half of her student athletes were sick during the fall basketball season and the winter volleyball season - the most illness she has seen in her 28 years of coaching.
Diana Potter’s daughter, Joy, who played volleyball and basketball, had “a consistent sore throat that she doesn’t have any other time. It is disturbing,” Diana Potter says.
“It makes you wonder,” says B.J. Morton, mother of junior Kelly Pilkington, another Shadle Park athlete.
“My daughter has been sick when she is in that environment. I’d like to see it checked by some kind of agency.”
Alison Olzendam’s daughter, Brooke, another two-sport athlete, recently was diagnosed as having ulcers in her throat.
But Olzendam, the principal of Chase Middle School, warns against overreacting.
“You take care of the emotional issue by getting all the information,” says Olzendam, who says she doesn’t think Brooke’s illness is related to gym air quality. “You deal with facts.”
Sheridan is a legend in girls high school sports in Spokane. She has won about 350 girls basketball games, more than 400 volleyball matches and seven state titles at Shadle Park. That’s more than any other woman coach in school district history.
She initially caught a cold in November. She remained sick throughout much of the fall and winter. Sheridan continued feeling fatigued and congested until Feb. 2, when she collapsed during a cross-country skiing trip.
She spent a week in the hospital with a fever running as high as 104 degrees. She didn’t respond to antibiotics that normally are successful in combating pneumonia. A battery of tests, including one for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was negative.
Chestnut, a Spokane pulmonary specialist who has treated Legionnaires’ disease, was called in. He gave Sheridan an antibiotic used in treating Legionnaires’ and non-fatal types of atypical pneumonia. Sheridan, who had lost 24 pounds during her illness, responded immediately.
Chestnut says school district and health officials should see if there are any other unusual pneumonia cases involving Shadle Park teachers and students. If there are, people should be concerned, he says.
If not, “you have to say she is a woman with bad luck.”
Even so, Sheridan’s illness is so unusual that two of her doctors are writing about her case for medical journals. The bacteria which cause Legionnaires’ disease usually are found in moist areas, such as standing water in air conditioners or most soil, and rarely are found in Spokane.
High fevers, chills, uncontrollable coughs and other cold symptoms can progress to more serious pulmonary complications. Deaths are reported in about 20 percent of Legionnaires’ cases.
Sheridan plans to return to teaching in April, but she said she will fight for improved ventilation in campus buildings, especially the gym.
“My concern is for the kids,” she says. “You put hundreds of kids in a closed area - sweating and breathing all day - and you breathe the same air. Something (bad) is going to happen.”
She says she will file a workers’ compensation complaint with the Department of Labor and Industries next week to get the school district to pay her medical bills and reinstate her sick leave, which she used up this winter.
Weak and worried about returning to the gym, she isn’t sure if she will continue coaching.
“I won’t risk my health to continue coaching,” she says, “but I can’t imagine not coaching after doing it 28 years.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: COLD TRUTH Spokane schools use recycled air in cold weather. Heating fresh air in temperatures below 20 degrees is too expensive.