ANN ARBOR — What could have turned into a tragic episode arrived in the dead of night at the unsuspecting Kazanjian family’s home.
Michelle Kazanjian found herself up again with a headache that wasn’t getting better, so she asked her husband, John, to get something for her head. But something was wrong in those early morning hours of Oct. 26, and Mr. Kazanjian, 55, collapsed in front of the medicine cabinet.
“I woke up a few moments later on the floor with Michelle, her arm around my back and her head on my shoulder,” he said. “I said, ‘What are we doing on the bathroom floor?’”
They didn’t know it at the time, but the couple and their adult daughter were slowly succumbing to the effects of a carbon monoxide leak, one that ultimately left them shaken but relatively unscathed. Mrs. Kazanjian, 54, felt detached and confused, and really just wanted to go to sleep. But the drive to call 911, deep-seated from her years as a nurse, persisted.
The family members, thankful to be alive and thankful for Mrs. Kazanjian’s intuition, will have extra reason to celebrate during the Thanksgiving Day holiday.
“It was very surreal, I didn’t realize anything was wrong with me,” Mrs. Kazanjian recalled of the incident. “Now that I can look back I can see I was acting strangely because I heard him crash but I didn’t do anything right away.”
When first responders found the three sickened family members, including Mrs. Kazanjian who had fallen down the stairs while trying to get to the front door, they recognized the symptoms and got everyone outside. The family was first taken to the University of Michigan Hospital, but it does not have a hyperbaric chamber needed to deliver oxygen treatment.
Mr. and Mrs. Kazanjian were taken by ambulance to ProMedica Toledo Hospital, while their daughter Mariam, 29, was flown to a hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Each year, more than 400 Americans die from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning not linked to fires, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Such exposure prompts more than 20,000 Americans to visit the emergency room annually and more than 4,000 are hospitalized.
“Most of the injuries from carbon monoxide are in the winter because of the heaters and furnaces, especially if they are not well maintained,” said Dr. Jihad Abbas, a vascular and wound surgeon who was part of the team to treat the couple at Toledo Hospital. “You wouldn’t know. It’s not odorous and has no color. You could be breathing it in and not feel it until you really feel bad.”
Common sources include furnaces, stoves, fireplaces, or engines running in a confined space, such as a closed garage. For the Kazanjians, it was a furnace that had corroded despite regular maintenance.
Carbon monoxide competes with the oxygen in the hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells, Dr. Abbas said.
“You will start having problems, starting with headaches, dizziness, as the levels go up, it progresses to weakness, vomiting and then it goes into the brain causing confusion, loss of consciousness and it goes downhill that way,” he said.
Mr. and Mrs. Kazanjian were treated in Toledo Hospital’s two hyperbaric chambers, which deliver 100 percent pressurized oxygen.
“The higher concentration of oxygen you give, it starts pushing away the carbon molecules off the hemoglobin,” Dr. Abbas said. “The strongest way to deliver oxygen is through the hyperbaric chamber.”
Originally developed to treat decompression sickness commonly known as “the bends” in divers, hyperbaric chambers are used to treat a variety of illnesses, including carbon monoxide poisoning, certain types of wounds, or radiation tissue damage.
Patients might feel a popping in their ears similar to flying in an airplane, but side effects are usually minimal, Dr. Abbas said.
The Kazanjians each had two, 2 1/2 hour treatments where they could see each other through the chambers, which helped ease some anxiety.
The Kazanjians are the first to admit they erred in not having carbon monoxide detectors at the time of the incident. Eager to rectify their mistake, they drove straight to a hardware store from the hospital before even stopping home.
“A lot of carbon monoxide detectors have been sold in our honor,” Mrs. Kazanjian said. “We’ve told everyone. If I see my neighbors on the street I tell them to buy one.”
Their public service announcement might have already saved one life. After lovingly badgering relatives, a nephew in Dayton who that week had purchased a detector started feeling woozy. Shortly after, the device started going off.
The source was determined to be a recently-activated furnace in the apartment building.
Mr. Kazanjian reflected on how much worse things could have been. Their granddaughters, who live with them half-time, had left that evening to spend the night with their father. The family had plans the following weekend for their five daughters and grandchildren to visit for the weekend to celebrate their anniversary, which they had celebrated the night before the incident.
“Two nights later all the kids were coming home, including the babies and our pregnant daughter. There would have been a dozen people in the house,” he said. “We’re really counting our blessings. This could have been a much greater disaster, and we are very thankful this Thanksgiving.”
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