When nurse Lisa Dunham was working at Providence Holy Family Hospital’s emergency room on Thanksgiving evening, a family brought in two children to be checked out. They spoke English as a second language and their translator was all of 12 years old, so communication was a little difficult. Dunham examined the two children and quickly realized it probably wasn’t a virus that made the family feel sick, but carbon monoxide poisoning.
“The triage nurse had this hunch so we checked the carbon monoxide level in the kids, and they were high,” said Dunham. “Then we checked the parents, too, and they were high.” At that point Dunham asked if there were anyone else at the house, and was told that there were four more people.
“They were asked to leave the house. A total of eight of them came in to get seen,” said Dunham, who then, in the middle of her busy overnight shift, called Avista Utilities. “I didn’t think twice about it; I just made the call thinking it was the normal thing to do.” An Avista crew found a malfunctioning forced-air gas furnace to be the source of the carbon monoxide – if the family had gone back home, everyone would have gotten sick again.
On Thursday, Dunham received a safety award medallion from Avista Utilities recognizing how she went above and beyond her call of duty to keep the family safe.
“It is the first medallion presented to someone outside the company for an exemplary act of safety,” said Jessie Wuerst, communications manager at Avista Utilities. “I gather there have been others given out to folks who have made presentations at conferences and such, but none to a nonemployee for a safety act.”
The medallion is made of silver from the Silver Valley and, added Wuerst, is very special to Avista.
Dunham was very surprised when she got the call.
“It’s the first award I’ve received while working at Providence, and I just felt like I was doing what was expected,” she said.
But calls about carbon monoxide poisoning usually come from the police or fire department.
“It is very unusual for us to get a call like this from a hospital,” said Bill Baker, codes and training coordinator for natural gas at Avista Utilities. “Normally fire or police would get called to the house, and we’d get a call through them to come out and inspect the place.”
Carbon monoxide calls have high priority and are responded to within two hours.
In this case, the two children involved were sleeping in the room where the furnace was. It was the first time the family had turned the furnace on during this heating season.
“It’s my understanding that they had heated the house with wood and with electrical heat,” said Baker.
Carbon monoxide poisoning is more common during cold months because people turn on heaters and furnaces that may not be properly maintained. Baker said it’s important to get furnaces inspected by a licensed professional before turning them on.
“The main problem is heating equipment that’s in disrepair,” said Baker.
Changing the filter and leaving the filter door off the furnace and covering or plugging heating vents and cold air intakes are just some of the things that can lead to carbon monoxide leaking from gas furnaces.
“At this time of the year we also see people who leave their cars to warm up in an attached garage and leave the door to the house ajar,” said Baker. “That leads to carbon monoxide buildup, too.”
Carbon monoxide detectors are available at most hardware stores and will be required in new buildings from Jan. 1 said Baker.
“When you have carbon monoxide poisoning, you don’t have a fever,” said Baker. “That’s one way to tell the difference between that and the flu or the cold.”
On the night of the incident, hospital staff also made sure the family could spend the night somewhere other than at their own home.