In Loving Memory of Cindy Duehring

~ Cindy Duehring ~

Held Captive in Her Own Home
(Part 1)

But Locked to a Mission

DEENA WINTER, For the Bismark Tribune
Sunday, November 9, 1997

Cindy Duehring hasn't been outside for eight years.

She hasn't been in a vehicle for nine years.

She hasn't watched a television for seven years.

She hasn't used the telephone since this spring.

Slowly, Cindy Duehring has had to abandon such devices, because they could kill her.

She is confined to her house along Lake Sakakawea 23 miles from Williston, unable to leave because her body has steadily deteriorated since pesticides nearly killed her 12 years ago. Her immune, respiratory and central nervous systems were irrevocably chemically damaged, and she is now one of tens of thousands of people in the United States who have disabling multiple chemical sensitivities, or MCS.

But Cindy's situation is far more severe than most. Even seemingly harmless things like air, drinking water, noise, and sunlight make Cindy sick. She is a prisoner inside her own home, but rather than nurse her many wounds, she devotes herself to her work, and has become widely respected as an expert on chemical injury issues -- so respected that she was recently one of five people in the world selected to receive the Right Livelihood Award. The award came with $60,000 to use toward her work -- work that is done despite incredible obstacles and painstaking procedures that must be performed every day, just to keep her alive.

Life as she knew it

Hardly a sickly child, Cindy's parents say she was an active, athletic, intelligent girl.

"I don't think she even had a problem of any kind, health-wise," said her father, Don Froechle, a 71-year-old retired commercial contractor who lives in Bismarck, where Cindy was born and raised.

He said she had a sunny disposition, even when she was hurting.

"As a child, you wanted to hug her all the time," he said.

As a teen-ager, Cindy was "an all around person with a whirlwind of activities," Don said.

He proudly recalls how she quickly learned to ski and operate a pontoon boat. The 5-foot-11 girl enjoyed tennis, church activities, singing in choirs, skiing, swimming and people.

"She needed to be around intellectuals because her mind was always going 60 per (miles an hour)," Don said.

Cindy wanted to be a doctor -- and there was no reason to believe she wouldn't. In 1980, she was a valedictorian and the top student in Bismarck High School's graduating class of 423. Four years later, she had one year left of pre-med studies at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., when fleas invaded her apartment.

The bank she was working at in downtown Seattle also had a chronic flea problem, and over the course of a year, she used 20 flea bombs before calling an exterminator. He sprayed her apartment twice in two months, but the fleas persisted. When the exterminator returned, he decided Cindy was bringing the fleas home from work with her, so he sprayed and fogged all of her clothes.

"I'll make sure you never have another flea in here as long as you live," he assured her.

He killed the fleas alright. And he almost killed Cindy.

Cindy was suffering flu-like symptoms and neurological problems (numbness, tingling, tics), but didn't connect her problems with the pesticides. Eventually, an occupational physician specializing in chemical poisonings figured out what was making her sick. She absorbed the pesticides through her skin, and they accumulated in her tissues, damaging her immune, respiratory and nervous systems.

The pesticide residue on her belongings was triggering the convulsions and neurological problems, so she got rid of everything she owned and moved out of the apartment.

She later learned the exterminator illegally combined two pesticides, one of which wasn't even registered for indoor use. (She never sought legal recourse.)

Toxicologists and researchers told Cindy the amount of pesticides she absorbed -- the highest her doctor had ever seen -- should have killed her. Five years after the pesticide incident, Cindy's blood tests still showed extraordinarily high levels of extremely toxic industrial solvents and propellants commonly used in pesticide formulations and jet fuels. Several doctors who regularly treat occupationally exposed industrial workers told Cindy her levels were what they'd expect to see after an industrial accident. Those levels are down now, but the permanent, extensive organ system damage they caused led to further complications.

As a result, Cindy is extremely sensitive to even low levels of chemicals. MCS involves physiologic damage and has no cure. This, according to her doctor, is a list of the ailments she suffers as a result of chemical exposures:

- Reactive airways disease.
- Autoimmunity against her internal organs -- the body's immune system mistakenly identifies its own cells and tissues as foreign and creates destructive antibodies against them as it would against a foreign virus.
- Peripheral nerve damage (damage to the nerves in her hands, feet, arms and legs) and central nervous system damage resulting in a seizure disorder.
- Kidney damage.
- Cardiovascular problems.
- Porphyrinopathy, a severe metabolic disorder in which heme production is impaired. Heme is essential to numerous metabolic and hormonal processes and is the primary component of hemoglobin, which is necessary to carry oxygen to the body's cells.

Many insecticides and herbicides, disinfectants, solvents and other chemicals such as chlorine and ammonia trigger attacks, during which Cindy suffers extreme pain, nausea and vomiting. If not managed, the attacks can quickly become life-threatening, causing seizures and kidney or respiratory failure. During the attacks, her stomach sometimes swells about 12 inches.

Exposure to chemicals causes Cindy to have tremors or seizures and bronchial restriction requiring oxygen support. Exposure to common products like perfume, detergents or cleaners can cause severe bronchial reactions or neurological seizures that leave her in unbearable pain. Herbicides, insecticides and fungicides are the biggest threat to her, so she gets much sicker in the summer.

Cindy has survived serious episodes of temporary kidney failure and has been repeatedly revived from anaphylactic shock, once even after her respiration had stopped after she tried an anti-seizure medication.

A change in plans

Cindy did not die the day she was drenched in pesticides, but her dreams did. The promising young student was forced to abandon her studies and return home to Bismarck to try to recuperate. While there, Cindy was introduced in 1986 to Jim Duehring, who was an intern at her aunt's church. Cindy still had high hopes and plans to return to college, but by the time she married Jim in June 1988, her body was ordering otherwise.

Continue: Part 2