A nurse named Linda, who worked in the VA state nursing home in Vermont, developed multiple chemical sensitivity, MCS, as did four of her coworkers. They attributed their chemical sensitivity to the strong cleaning products used in the nursing home. When these women started asking their coworkers to refrain from wearing perfume, they were ostracized, as Linda describes in her story that appears in my book Casualties of Progress: Personal Histories from the Chemically Sensitive.
Coworkers stopped speaking to us, and jokes were made at our expense. Then a new assistant administrator came on board who asked us if we were aware of internal e-mail messages that some of the women in the facility had been sending to one another about us on the company computers. . . .
I find it hard to describe my emotions when I read the e-mail messages. I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. . . . Reading how my coworkers conspired to wear heavy amounts of perfume, all the same kind on the same day, was horrifying. They even named the day according to the perfume they chose to wear that day; for example, one day was named Peach Petals day. [Editor’s note: To avoid possible liability, the real name of the perfume has not been used.] They bragged about spraying the bathroom that we used with perfume and about spraying the top of the stairway that we used. They joked how all of us should dress up as “bubble people” for Halloween and they should dress up as cleaning products. One of the worst perfume offenders wrote on the e-mail, “like I said before, shoot the bitches. I know where we can get some bullets.” And this woman is a registered nurse.
We did not obtain the e-mail messages until September 1996. It happened that my mother had died on July 15, 1996. I remember working on July 14, 1996, so ill I didn’t think I could survive because the perfume was so heavy that day. The nursing home that my mother resided in called me on July 14 to tell me that she might not survive the night. My husband begged me to go to the emergency room for myself because I was having such a hard time breathing. My lungs were so congested that he could hear my respirations across the room. When I went home before going to be with my mom, my little girl said, “Mommy, you stink like perfume.” My coworkers had worn so much perfume that day that I had absorbed it in my hair and clothing. But I couldn’t take time to go to the emergency room because I wanted to be with my mother as she was dying. As it turned out, the nurses at her nursing home worried more about me that night than about their patients. I cannot forget how I suffered that night, both from losing my mom and from the physical suffering that I later learned was the result of a malicious prank by my coworkers. When I read the e-mail and recognized the date of Peach Petals day as being the day I was called to the nursing home to be with my dying mother, I felt violated. My grief felt fresh all over again.
Because of the e-mail evidence, Linda was able to take her case to the Human Rights Commission of Vermont. In December 1996, its members voted in favor of her claim, stating that she had been discriminated against on the basis of a disability—MCS. I have heard of many similar cases, but I suspect that most people who hear about such abusive practices discount the reports, thinking that no one could be that mean. Sadly, the Vermont case indicates that even nurses can be cruel in some instances.