Fallen fighter: Don Holliday battles toxic chemical exposure

Image 1. Home sweet home: Don Holliday needs a completely chemical-free room, big enough that he can stand up without hitting his head, made entirely from natural products.

Image 2. Arleen and Don Holliday.

Photos by Max Cooper

Editor’s note: The following story signals a shift in Xpress’ Wellness section that reflect our mission of building community. Many local residents struggle with health issues; many search for (and offer) solutions for those in need; many seek to focus our attention on the health issues and policies we face at the city, county, regional, state and national levels. While we can’t hope to cover all of these, our “News, Views and Issues” approach aims to more fully reflect residents’ diverse needs and help marshal local resources to address them while continuing to report on key health-and-wellness happenings.

The fire that scorched Don Holliday's life took place in 1988. At the scene of a Winn-Dixie kitchen fire in Fort Myers, Fla., black smoke blanketed the sky. Holliday immediately called for backup.

"I went in on the fire," he recalls, speaking through the charcoal-lined face mask he must wear whenever he goes outside. As a 10-year volunteer firefighter, Holliday says he was "the point man" at the scene. “One of the captains was behind me,” he explains, his voice somber. “As I went in, my air pack broke. I don't know if you know anything about firefighting, but you don't drop the hose and run.” He looks up, adding, “That's what I should’ve done."

The jet-black smoke was caused by burning plastic, which can produce cyanide gas and other toxic chemicals. “Even the lights above were hanging down like icicles," Holliday reports. Nonetheless, he pushed through the raging smoke and flames. "I figured they'd take care of me if something happened, and I thought, well, it's not going to happen to me. So I went through it anyway, and when I come out of there, around my nose and mouth was just black as soot. I was coughing up soot. By rights they should have sent an ambulance for me, but they didn't. [The captain] told me to take some rest and call in later."

Within a few hours, Holliday began experiencing violent headaches, disorientation and trouble breathing. His wife, Arleen Holliday, took him to the doctor. After a slew of tests and X-rays, they were faced with a bleak diagnosis: chemical bronchitis, toxic inhalation syndrome and asthma.

“The doctors all said the same thing,” he reveals. “There was nothing they could do: nothing."

Don's symptoms soon became unbearable. He could no longer work or volunteer as a firefighter. The fire, he notes, might not be entirely to blame for his illness, since he worked in pest control and as a painter for years. “It was just the icing on the cake."

When the Fort Myers Fire Department denied his petitions for lost wages and hospital expenses, Don consulted a lawyer but, against his advice, decided just to drop the case, the couple says.

Looking back, however, they feel that was a big mistake. "We didn't know his [health condition] would be long-term," Arleen explains, eyes fixed on her husband, "so we didn't investigate a lot ourselves." Nearly breathless, Don adds, "I was sick at the time and couldn't fight it anymore."

No friends, no relief

The two now live in Barnardsville, where they’ve rented land for the past 13 years. Don’s severe chemical allergies, however, have totally isolated him. He can't enter any building, because he's fiercely allergic to chemicals, including all cleaning products, perfumes, insulation, caulking, smoke, exhausts: anything that’s not 100 percent natural. Before his doctor visits, Don has to remind the staff not to wear anything scented that day, and he still goes home with a throbbing headache.

The Hollidays have been married for 46 years, but they haven’t shared a bed in more than 20. Don sleeps in a 4.5-by-6-foot travel trailer that’s parked beside their mobile home. Despite three air purifiers and two fans that run constantly, he still wakes to violent coughing fits, lurching out of bed in a panic when the scent of wood smoke or burning trash creeps in. Don sleeps on a homemade mattress that Arleen constructed using aired-out blankets wrapped around springs.

“He can't take a used mattress because of the powdery smells, and he can't take a new one because of the chemicals," she explains. "He can't cope all night long in any dwelling that we've ever had. The travel trailer he's in right now is the safest one we've had, but he's not comfortable."

Often worse than the symptoms themselves is the pain of complete isolation. "I have no friends — none," says Don. "I've got two people I call, and I know nobody else anymore. Nobody. Our son lives close to us, and our daughter's in Clyde. If the grandkids come, it all has to be done outside: I can't go in their house, and they can't come in mine."

"The little one would come in anyway," Arleen remembers. "We'd cover the furniture so he could come in and watch TV, and I'd do crafts with him. Don would get deathly ill anyway, so…”

“So I just bit the bullet,” Don interjects.

“He just craved having [their grandson] around and wanted him to come over,” Arleen continues, looking at her husband. She even has a changing room out back where she can wash and store everything she's worn outside her home, so that nothing from the outside world will trigger Don’s acute sensitivities.

To date, neither Western medicine nor alternative approaches ranging from acupuncture to herbal treatments have given Don relief. He’s now battling skin cancer, which he thinks is due to chemical poisoning exacerbated by sun exposure. "In three months time I'll get as many as 20 skin cancers come up, and out of that, I'll have two or three biopsies and surgeries," he reports, clutching a bandaged hand resulting from his most recent surgery.

“My mind races, from the time I wake up until I go to sleep at night, about the possibilities of what I could use, or if that would work,” he notes, adding, “We need ideas.”

Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 101, or at asezakblatt@mountainx.com.

Send your health-and-wellness news and tips to Caitlin Byrd at cbyrd@mountainx.com or mxhealth@mountainx.com; or call 251-1333, ext. 140.

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About Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt
Aiyanna grew up on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. She was educated at The Cambridge School of Weston, Sarah Lawrence College, and Oxford University. Aiyanna lives in Asheville, North Carolina where she proudly works for Mountain Xpress, the city’s independent local newspaper.

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