CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A Rhode Island construction worker received life-saving treatment after being exposed to carbon monoxide last week, thanks to St. Francis Hospital's hyperbaric chamber.
Bain Edmundson, 49, of Barrington, R.I., an employee of Rosciti Construction Group, was hospitalized last Tuesday after being found unresponsive in his hotel room.
Edmundson and co-workers were staying at the Holiday Inn Express along Corridor G. A ventilation pipe, meant to send fumes produced by the hotel's pool gas heater to the roof, was disconnected and pumped carbon monoxide into some guest rooms.
Edmundson's roommate, William Moran, 44, of Warwick, R.I., was pronounced dead at the scene.
Edmundson was originally transported to Charleston Area Medical Center's General Hospital before being transferred to St. Francis. That hospital has the only critical-care hyperbaric chamber unit in West Virginia. Other than it, the closest emergency hyperbaric chamber unit is in Pittsburgh.
"Every minute can make a difference when you're looking at losing brain and heart tissue," said Dr. Lester Labus, Edmundson's doctor at St. Francis.
When patients are exposed to carbon monoxide, molecules of the colorless, odorless gas bond to hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells. The carbon monoxide bonds so tightly the hemoglobin can't carry oxygen any longer, slowly suffocating the person.
Labus said it's almost like a stroke or a heart attack except oxygen is cut off to the entire brain and heart, not just a portion of those organs.
Unfortunately, carbon monoxide is also difficult to remove from the body.
Labus said it takes about five hours for a patient to get rid of half the carbon monoxide in their body by breathing normal room air. That time drops to about 45 minutes if patients breathe pure oxygen, but even that's too long to wait.
Carbon monoxide reaches its half life in about 23 minutes when patients are in a hyperbaric chamber breathing pure oxygen. The pressure helps the oxygen to dissolve in their blood streams.
Edmundson came to St. Francis with 42 percent carbon monoxide in his blood.
"His exposure was tremendous," Labus said.
Most people have zero carbon monoxide in their blood. Smokers have 4 to 9 percent, with the percentage increasing as they smoke more.
Patients start showing mild symptoms when their carbon monoxide levels are between 10 and 20 percent, Labus said. Those can include nausea, fatigue and headaches.
At 20 percent and up, more serious symptoms begin. Patients experience seizures or die when carbon monoxide levels in their blood reach 50 or 60 percent.
After one treatment, Edmundson's levels dropped from 42 to 0.7 percent.