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Surviving a subtle, stalking, silent stranger's stranglehold

Every autumn, well-meaning power- and insulation-companies repeatedly warn, “Winter’s coming! Here are ways to cut your utility costs.”

My late husband and I followed all such advice. We weather-stripped our home’s doors and windows, sealed every exterior crack. And to make sure our systems were safe, we asked for inspections, not only by a licensed heating contractor but also by an agent from the power company. We felt a bit proud when both companies’ reps congratulated us on our fine efforts.

In January, following writing thank-you notes for Christmas gifts and dispensing with their festive wrappings, I developed a headache and a pounding heartbeat. I told my husband, “I must be coming down with a cold. I think I’ll take a nap,” and headed for the couch.

I’d just dropped off when the phone rang. When he didn’t answer the interruption, I was a bit annoyed, and although dizzy and nauseated, I stumbled to do so. My next memory was being aroused by the door bell and finding myself - and the phone - on the floor.

(Hours later I learned a UPS driver - in ringing the bell to signal a package delivery - had saved our lives. So had that phone call.)

As I lay there, I spotted my husband - also on the floor - beneath the kitchen table. I called him via my pet name, and when he didn’t respond, I used his first name (a ploy which always meant business).

When he still didn’t respond, I shrugged a disinterested, Well, I guess he’s dead. Incredibly, this thought carried no deeper emotion than if had he been road kill.

On the verge of vomiting and diarrhea, the same lack of reasoning didn’t tell me to crawl to the bathroom but to the front door to reach up and turn its knob. I wasn’t aware of needing air, only wanting it. After a few gasps, I revived enough to phone a neighbor, simply to ask if she’d come over.

So why didn’t I call 9-1-1? It never occurred to me. Neither did the thought of the neighbor finding it unusual that we were on the floor.

She, a former nurse (I’d not remembered that, either) recognized our white faces and red lips as possible carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning and called for help. Within moments, police, power- and fire-department reps arrived.

My husband and I rode in separate, screaming ambulances to the hospital, where we spent six hours in the ER under oxygen masks, “which,” hospital personnel said, “is the only way to clear your systems of CO.”

So how did CO find access?

Despite our initial inspections by supposedly qualified people, other inspectors later found our hot-water tank’s vent was piped horizontally instead of at a 45-degree with an upward slant.

Thus, due to all our efforts at sealing our home against the cold, all those captured, dangerous fumes couldn’t escape.

So, what’s my advice in preventing a possible, similar threat of your own?

If you have “cold or flu symptoms” - such as a headache and/or a racing heartbeat - go outside for a few minutes to see if they diminish. Meanwhile, jot this for-emergency-only phone number, 1-800-882-3377, somewhere in plain sight for if/when you suspect you have valid cause for concern.

© Copyright 2015 by Isabel Torrey, a King city resident and long-time columnist