Photo Essay Contest: A Trip to the ER
Editor’s note: AIHA’s IAMIH campaign encourages members to spread awareness about the industrial hygiene profession, share why they love what they do, and inspire others to enter the field. As part of the 2017 IAMIH Leadership Challenge, AIHA held a photo essay contest that asked members to describe the moment when their eyes were opened to the life-changing potential of a career in industrial hygiene. The top three entries were chosen for publication on SynergistNOW.
Below is the winning entry in the 2017 IAMIH Photo Essay Contest. The 2nd runner up was published in February, and the 1st runner up earlier this month. Congratulations to the winners, and thank you for sharing your stories!
I knew IH was for me when I was rushed into an emergency room. At that time, I didn’t know what an IH was, but I knew what happened to me should not happen to any worker.
On this particular morning, I was working in a research and development lab as a chemist for a pharmaceutical firm. My lab partner was out on vacation. The day started out normal: I was setting up a routine assay to run. As usual, I walked out to the main QC/QA lab refrigerator and found the bottle of standard I needed to prepare the calibration curve for comparison alongside the samples I was running. While continuing with assay preparations, I started to feel strange. Dismissing the odd sensations, I kept working. As I started to feel even weirder, I walked down to the ladies’ room. As I entered, the reflection I saw in the mirror looked otherworldly. My skin was grey, eyes swollen, lips blue, and the walls were starting to close in around me. I ran up to Human Resources and collapsed in the doorway.
The HR director scooped me up, threw me in her car, and took me to the emergency room. In need of information, the director kept asking me, “Did you eat something? What were you doing in the lab?” All I can remember was babbling on and doing all I could to remain conscious.
Once at the emergency room, the director ran in and came out with a doctor pushing a wheelchair. The doctor kept asking me what seemed like endless questions, but I couldn’t answer. The director said I worked in a research lab with small amounts of a wide range of chemicals. The doctor persisted in asking me what I worked with that morning. I was growing more unresponsive. In frustration, he picked up my hands and took a good look, then a sniff. He yelled, “Do you work with cyanide?”
I couldn’t answer, but the HR director said that cyanide compounds were used in some of the assays. The doctor ordered to get me washed off and bring the cyanide antidote kit. At that point all I can remember is cold water, my clothing being cut off, an oxygen mask on my face, and injections going into my arms.
After a couple of hours I started to feel better, and then, thankfully, my father appeared. The doctor told him and the HR director that I had a very close call and the company needed to do a thorough investigation to figure out what led to the cyanide exposure. Eventually I was released and my dad took me home. We watched what would turn out to be one of the all-time classic Lakers championship games together. It’s funny how this distinct memory got lodged in with all the trauma.
When I returned to the lab the next week, I was met by an investigation committee and what seemed like a mountain of paperwork. My supervisor asked me to go through the motions of everything I did that fateful day. I set up vials, collected reagents, weighed out samples, and prepped the assay just as I had done the previous week. No cyanide anywhere. Next, I walked out to the QC/QA lab with the investigators. I opened the refrigerator where the standards were kept. The QC/QA lab manager was on the investigating team, and he said that there were cyanide-containing solutions in the refrigerator. I pointed at the bottle of standard I used for the assay. A tipped over bottle of cyanogen bromide, a reagent used in a completely different set of assays, was hidden behind other materials in the bin next to the bottle I handled. The cyanogen bromide bottle was practically empty, and there was a residue on the exterior of the bottle and in the bin. After some swabs of the exteriors of the bottles and bin, the source of the cyanide I was exposed to was identified.
At that point, the company asked me to join the soon-to-be formed safety committee. As a committee, we inspected areas of the plant, performed surveys, dealt with employee concerns, and hosted training sessions for the manufacturing and laboratory staff. I found the time I spent interacting with employees regarding health and safety matters much more satisfying than working as a bench chemist. It became my mission to figure out a way I could work every day protecting worker health, not just occasionally on the safety committee. After a research trip to the library, I found the perfect career path for me, and it was called industrial hygiene.
The photo in this post shows me on my last day at the pharmaceutical firm in 1981. I’m pictured with a good friend who wore his Shriners clown costume for me as a special treat. The photo is especially meaningful for me because it was taken on the day I set off on the path that led to a satisfying and successful career. That summer I started grad school, studying industrial hygiene at the University of Texas Health Science Center School of Public Health.
This all occurred over 35 years ago, but I have never forgotten the feeling of what it was like sitting in that emergency room. I had to figure out how I could devote my life to preventing the fear and harm that can come from workplace exposures, and I’m thankful on so many levels that I found the IH path.