Tomasita’s story from Santa Fe appeared in my 1999 book Casualties of Progress: Personal Histories from the Chemically Sensitive. Her brother Moises’s story about his reaction to the same pesticide event will appear in the next post.
Back in February of 1993 I worked for my employer as a housekeeper, and I went into her guest house on a daily basis. On February 18, I went into the guest house to get a magazine for her. I smelled a faint odor of perfume, but I didn’t think anything of it because she had had some guests staying there. My brother Moises had gotten sick the day before while he was working there, but we just thought at first that he had suddenly gotten the flu.
Later that afternoon when I went back to the guest house to mop the kitchen floor, I could still smell perfume. I got my bucket, filled it with water, put in some floor cleaner, and started to mop the floor. While I was working, I turned on the trash compactor, and then the smell became more intense. I continued mopping the floor, but I noticed that a lot of muscle tension was setting in. The right side of my face became numb, and I had a feeling of being very fearful. I finished mopping the floor and went back to the main house. When I told my employer what had happened, she told me I could leave for the day. When I was walking out the door, I started crying and became anxious and excited.
I got in my car and started driving home, but I became very disorientated. I knew I was going home, but I didn’t know if I was going the right way. I started salivating a lot, salivating like a bull dog. Finally I made it home, and I took a shower, which made me feel a little bit better.
The next day I went back to work, but I didn’t go back into the guest house. I still wasn’t feeling well. I felt very irritable and had a lot of muscle tension. The following day was a Friday. I had decided to go back into the guest house to empty the trash compactor. When I picked up the bag, I started having tremendous muscle tension in my neck. The right side of my face became numb, as if I had had dental work done. I became fearful again, and the salivation started again. I went back to the main house, and my employer told me to go home.
That weekend we went out to dinner because it was my birthday that day. I got very sick in the restaurant, so we had to leave. The rest of the weekend I was just out of it. I didn’t have no energy, pizazz to do anything.
The following Monday I went back to work. My employer had decided that I should not go back into the guest house, but I started reacting when I was near other people who came back from the guest house. I felt like something was crawling all over my skin. Then as the weeks went by, I started feeling that way at the main house. I started having difficulty with my speech; I started stuttering a lot. Certain places I would go I would become very fearful, even angry, become violent. I knew something was wrong with me, but I didn’t know what. I had gone to urgent care, and they didn’t know what was wrong; they told me it might be allergies. Finally my employer arranged for me to go see an allergist, and he told me that my problems came from exposure to a toxin.
As time passed, I was having reactions in my employer’s main house when I would do something like fold the clothes. I was even reacting to things in my own home. I would sleep outdoors because I felt better outside. I was at my wits’ end. My daughter would come to hug me, and I would get sick. When people came to visit, I would get sick. (I didn’t realize yet that I was now sensitive to chemicals in their cosmetics or clothing.) When I got a reaction, my gums would swell, my tongue would swell, I would have difficulty concentrating, I would itch a lot, and salivate.
When I started having reactions in my home as well as at my employer’s place, I thought that I might have brought home some sort of bacterial or mold contamination from her guest house. So I cleaned my house with industrial strength disinfectants. I washed the ceiling beams and the walls and the floors with disinfectant. I was constantly washing everything in my home. Before long I couldn’t tolerate being in my house anymore, and I couldn’t use any of the blankets from my house. Now I realize that it was the detergents and disinfectants and soaps that I was using that were continuing to make me sick.
Finally, my doctor recommended that I see a specialist in environmental medicine, so at last in April, I consulted a doctor who understood what was going on with me. By now I was no longer able to go into my house without getting sick or to go in anyone’s house.
Since I felt better outdoors, I tried living in a tent. I lived in a tent at the construction site for my brother’s house for about a month, but then I had to leave because I was sensitive to the construction materials stored on the site. I also became sensitive to the tent, so I couldn’t sleep in it anymore.
Finally my brother Moises got a cleaning crew to come to my house, and they cleaned everything with plain water. After we had aired out the house for a few weeks, I was finally able to come back into it and live there again. I had to learn what cleaning products and personal care products I could use that wouldn’t make me sick.
My daughter was young, she was about ten years old when I got sick, and she thought I had gone crazy. They all thought I had gone crazy because they weren’t bothered by the things that I was reacting to. Eventually when I finally got to a doctor who understood my situation and started reading literature about chemical sensitivity and we began changing our lifestyle, they became more knowledgeable and understanding. My husband wasn’t that understanding, however, so he left me. The hardest part of being sick was finding someone who understood the situation and could say, “Yes, there is something wrong with you. You’re not crazy.” Finding that doctor enabled me to get back to a point where I can live basically a normal life, except that I have to be very careful of exposures.
There are still many things that I’m very sensitive to. I make a point of going to the grocery store early in the morning or late in the evening so there aren’t so many people around, with their soaps and perfumes and personal hygiene products that bother me. Even when I go out in the car, I avoid the main streets and take all the back roads because car fumes bother me a lot. If family members want to be around me, they have to use things that are perfume-free. Nobody is allowed to smoke in my house.
I have to be careful where I go. There are a lot of peoples’ houses that I can’t go into, or if I go into their houses, I can’t stay very long. Some people understand, and some people don’t. Some people think it’s all in my head, but my family and I know it’s not, so that’s the important thing.
Over the years since that exposure in the guest house, we’ve thrown around so many different theories, wondering what made me sick. I’ve always thought that maybe a can of pesticide was thrown in the compactor because when I turned on the compactor the smell became more intense. Lots of pesticides have perfume added to cover up the pesticide odor, so that would explain the perfume odor that I kept smelling. I’ve always speculated that maybe the guests that were there sprayed some pesticide around and threw the half-empty can in the compactor. I’ve always felt something was put in the compactor, but the bag is gone, so we will never know.
Note from Alison Johnson: Excessive salivation, which was one of Tomasita’s and her brother Moises’s most prominent initial symptoms, is a hallmark symptom of pesticide poisoning.
I had a long battle with worker’s comp, and when we finally came to the hearing part of it, the judge basically told me it was all in my head and I was just trying to get rich and he was not going to help me get rich. It was very frustrating. My daughter broke out in tears and told him he didn’t know what he was talking about and when it happened to someone in his family, then he would. I had to calm her down, but we were both in tears because it’s very frustrating to have somebody tell you it’s all in your head when it’s not.