Principal: Carbon monoxide scare may raise awareness, save lives

Published 1:39 pm Monday, October 27, 2008

Polk County Virtual Early College Principal Dr. Barbara Fedock says she hopes the school&squo;s evacuation Monday will raise awareness about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning and possibly even save lives.

Fedock says she&squo;s grateful her students were able to avoid serious harm and that the experience may now serve as a valuable lesson for everyone in the county.

Already a few parents have told her they&squo;re concerned about carbon monoxide from their heating sources at home and they plan to install carbon monoxide detectors. The school system put CO detectors in the Virtual Early College on Tuesday, and officials said they would look at doing the same for other schools.

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Polk County Emergency Medical Services Director told county commissioners that her department is distributing information about CO poisoning while there&squo;s a heightened awareness of the problem throughout the county.

Fedock says the experience of students and teachers at the early college shows how difficult it can be for victims to identify CO poisoning and act quickly.

It wasn&squo;t until her assistant Mary Greene said she wasn&squo;t feeling well and wondered if there was something wrong with the air that Fedock took action. Until then she had dismissed her own feelings of dizziness and discomfort, thinking it was just something wrong with her since she hadn&squo;t been feeling well in recent days anyway.

Fedock says she remembers moments before talking with Greene that she stood at the copier and felt very dizzy. She looked around at all the students, who were busy working and noticed that they appeared to be fine, she said.

But when she heard Greene was experiencing the same ill feelings, she immediately ordered everyone to open the school building doors and move outside.

The students didn&squo;t hesitate, but they also didn&squo;t panic, she says. They moved swiftly and orderly toward the front door, helping each other along the way.

It was then, as they came in contact with the higher oxygen levels of the outside air, that she says everyone began feeling the full effects of the CO poisoning.

Carbon monoxide combines with red blood cells that normally carry oxygen. As more CO replaces oxygen in the red blood cells, less oxygen is carried in the blood to the brain and other body tissues, potentially causing severe poisoning and even death.

The students had been breathing in elevated levels of carbon monoxide for close to two hours, since the heat was turned on just before 8:30 a.m. Fedock says she and others noticed an odd smell&bsp; in the school that morning, but figured it was because it was the first time this school year that the heat system was turned on.

As students evacuated and reached the front door shortly before 10:30 a.m., some of them collapsed, others began feeling sick and dizzy and staggered to the front lawn.

Fedock says students stopped to help those who were struggling, checking their pulses and offering articles of clothing to keep them warm.

Fedock had told Greene to call Stearns, the school system&squo;s central office. Calls also went out to 911. Fedock says county and school officials began to arrive but couldn&squo;t tell immediately what was causing students to get sick since they themselves felt fine inside the building.

However, Columbus firefighters, who led the emergency response, were able to determine the problem quickly. Firefighter Bobby Arledge recorded extremely high CO levels shortly after entering the building.

Columbus Fire Chief Geoff Tennant, who is also chairman of the school board, immediately instructed firefighters to put on oxygen masks and ordered oxygen for the students and teachers.

Fedock says she remembers Tennant telling her to get students farther away from the entrance of the building. Some students had remained sitting by the front entrance, unable or unwilling to get any further away.

Fedock says that order helped her focus again, something that was difficult in the impaired state caused by the CO poisoning. Fedock says she remembers trying to help other students, including one she guided toward the front lawn of the sheriff&squo;s office where emergency response personnel were moving students. She says the student collapsed on the way there, and she too then collapsed.

One of the scariest aspects of CO poisoning, says Fedock, is that it&squo;s very hard to tell what is happening and victims lose the ability to think clearly. Victims often mistake symptoms as being caused by an illness and don&squo;t leave the area. Fedock says she worries what would have happened if her assistant hadn&squo;t said something, and says she won&squo;t hesitate in the future to tell someone if she feels dizzy or ill.

Within a short period following the evacuation, all 30 of the students and the two teachers of the Virtual Early College were transported to St. Luke&squo;s Hospital for blood testing and oxygen treatment. Everyone checked out okay, she says, although a few people, including herself, had significantly elevated CO levels in their blood. Some were not much below levels requireing a blood transfusion, she said. Fedock says it appears the people with higher CO levels were those who were a little more active physically in the building that morning, moving around and perhaps breathing a little harder.

At the hospital, students continued to offer each other support, says Fedock, going around the hospital to check on each other. Parents also went around checking on all the students and on fellow parents.

&dquo;The students really stayed with each other and helped each other and the parents have been so nice and supportive,&dquo; said Fedock.

She adds that the response from emergency personnel was tremendous. Emergency workers filled the area around the school building, working quickly to get everyone to the hospital.

After reaching the hospital, students recovered quickly, says Fedock, and even began worrying about whether they would get assignments done in time. Some students had left in the middle of tests and asked Fedock to check their computers and save their work.

The school was closed on Tuesday while repairs were made to the heating system to make sure it was operating properly. Fedock planned to talk with the students when the school reopened on Wednesday morning so they could share their thoughts about the experience. She says she believes the experience may bring the students closer together. At least one student, she says, also gained inspiration from the scare for Halloween, deciding to incorporate an oxygen mask in their costume.

This is the second year for the Polk County Virtual Early College. After spending the first year in a room at the high school, the school this year got its own home in the county&squo;s former main library building on Walker Street.

The early college, a Learn and Earn school that allows students to earn college credits while in high school, is the first of its kind in North Carolina.