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Article 9: "Scared to Death" of Having to Call 911

Kootenai Valley Times – September 22, 2000

– by Dr. Gloria Gilbere

Dear Dr. Gloria:

Several months ago I was invited to be on a health services panel in New Mexico as part of a community forum regarding people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). The forum was convened by the Governor's Committee on Concerns for the Handicapped to explore the incidence and problems associated with this difficult medical condition.

Usually on such panels I expect to take 10-15 minutes to explain the components and functioning of the EMS system and how it serves the needs of the entire population. I generally speak with pride based upon my positive sense of EMS in New Mexico. On this day, however, I never got the opportunity. The next hour was spent listening to testimony from the impacted public, some via speaker telephone from their homes and offices.

The testimony was very personal and powerful. These were people who are either afflicted with MCS, sometimes referred to as Environmental Illness (EI), and/or care-givers who work with these patients/clients as physicians, nurses, social service workers, family members or advocates. They had a lot to say about the incredible problems and hardships endured in accessing health care and obtaining appropriate health services.

At first I listened with interest, but the issues raised had nothing to do with EMS. Then several folks shared experiences in having to call 911 and encountering EMTs who smelled of cologne or cigarette smoke or who were not responsive to their concerns about vehicle exhaust fumes, the plastic in the oxygen mask, etc. They spoke of actually being afraid of having to call EMS and risk being taken to a hospital where they might be assaulted by toxic chemical fumes, and unwanted treatments that might actually worsen their condition. The vehemence of their concern caught me by surprise. All I could think to say was that they always have the right to refuse care or transport. One woman said that my comment "was good in theory," but when she was scared, in pain, and perhaps disoriented, she found it impossible to rationally counteract the decisive nature of the EMT's desire to put her in the ambulance and follow their protocols. Some of these people were indeed "scared to death" of being in a situation where 911 had to be called.

As a result of this disturbing feedback, I committed to working with the advocates for MCS and related conditions to provide some educational materials and work through approaches to dealing with these and other patients who have conditions that pose special problems for emergency responders. Over the last several months, State EMS Medical Director, EMS Region I Training Coordinator, and I have met with Dr. Ann McCampbell (a general practitioner and MCS victim) on several occasions, have read various articles and materials, and put together a file on MCS. We even asked the Santa Fe Fire Department to bring over a fully stocked ambulance so that Dr. McCampbell, and several MCS sufferers, could go through it and assess various materials and products that we use routinely in EMS.

Barak Wolff, M.P.H.
Santa Fe, New Mexico


No one should be "scared to death" of having to call 911. New Mexico is doing its part to correct those fears through education of health care providers. What is your community doing? It's easy to sit back and let others do the work; the only way to affect change is through education and involvement. Communicate with your EMT personnel, hospital, physicians and policy makers; education is the key that unlocks the lock to prevention. Remember, the next victim of MCS could be you.


This and subsequent articles are for the purpose of education and to provide support to the millions afflicted with allergies and multiple chemical sensitivity syndromes.

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