HACKENSACK - Shirl Calder came close to dying of carbon monoxide poisoning earlier this month as she sat in her warm rural Hackensack home while temperatures dipped below zero outside.
Though her furnace was running well, it turned out to be pumping odorless, deadly carbon monoxide into her house and lungs instead of venting up the chimney.
"I guess God must really have a lot of things for me to do here yet," she said in an interview this week, referring to the many events that worked together to save her life Feb. 5.
About noon, Calder said she got up from the kitchen table. She is an artist who not only dines, but also paints at that table. She said she felt wobbly and a little dizzy, but she walked in "baby steps" out her driveway to get her mail.
Sasha, her 8-month-old dog, kept going in and out of the house.
Usually pretty active, Sasha just kind of looked at Calder when she was in the house and didn't try to play that day. "She knew something was wrong," Calder recalls.
"I felt tired, but I kept thinking the good Lord told me, Don't go to sleep or you won't wake up.'"
Somewhere between 2 and 3 p.m., Calder decided to call Longville Clinic to see if she could get an appointment and called neighbors Denny and Julie Newman to ask for a ride to the clinic. Luckily, the Newmans were home that day, but the clinic thought her symptoms sounded serious enough that she should go to a hospital.
When the Newmans arrived minutes later, Julie asked Calder if she could stand to put her coat on, but Calder's legs buckled and she fell back against the bench beside her kitchen table.
"If she had waited another half-hour to call us, she probably would have been dead before she made the call."
Neighbor of Shirl Calder
The Newmans called 911.
Dawn Peterson with Hackensack First Response arrived and gave Calder oxygen. Peterson said in an interview this week she smelled something in the house that led her to believe there also may have been a gas leak as well.
North Memorial Ambulance transported Calder to St. Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd. Calder said they checked various possibilities and found she had low blood sugar, but she still did not know the real cause of her problems.
In the meantime, the Newmans thought maybe they should check Calder's house for carbon monoxide, so Denny called another neighbor, Al Bradshaw, who just happened to have recently purchased a replacement carbon monoxide detector he hadn't installed yet in his house.
So, Bradshaw and neighbor Dick Roddy went to Calder's house.
Immediately, the detector alarm sounded. The detector registered more than 800 parts per million of carbon monoxide in Calder's house. Most alarms begin sounding at 50 to 70 parts per million.
Newman called the hospital to inform the doctors Calder's condition likely was caused by carbon monoxide poisoning and of the reading they got in the house. Her neighbors shut off her furnace, aired out her house, drained the water to prevent freeze-up.
By that time it was close to 5 p.m. when Bradshaw called Walker Animal Clinic to see whether he could bring Sasha there to be checked and boarded. The clinic extended its hours to allow Bradshaw time to take Sasha to Walker.
When St. Joseph's doctors tested Calder's body for carbon monoxide, the reading came back at 23 parts per million. Doctors told her 30 parts per million is fatal. They put her on oxygen for six hours until the reading dropped to 3.2 parts per million, she said.
"If she had waited another half-hour to call us, she probably would have been dead before she made the call," Julie Newman said. Calder spent the night at the hospital, then the next two days at her daughter Marcy's house in Akeley.
"I still get a little weak feeling at times," she said, but she is thankful that tests run at the hospital showed no damage to her liver, kidneys or heart.
Calder never had the headache often associated with carbon monoxide poisoning, but the Newmans did for the rest of the day after they left her house.
When Gordy Nelson of Advantage Heating and Cooling, Backus, came to install a new, high efficiency furnace for Calder Feb. 7, he said he noticed a definite downdraft from her chimney. He also found the heat exchanger in her old furnace had cracked, letting flames blow out of the exchanger and creating perfect conditions for carbon monoxide fumes to travel throughout Calder's house.
Looking back, Calder said her old furnace had gone out a year ago at Christmas time, but she got it going again. It was more than 25 years old, she thinks.
She had noticed an increased amount of gray dust on her furniture the last year. Maybe that was a warning, she now thinks.
Calder is appreciative of the help from her neighbors.
"I have got the most wonderful neighbors anybody could have," she said.
She has been trying to figure out how to adequately thank her neighbors for being there when she needed help. Her neighbors, though, said they were all just very grateful everything worked out so well.
Calder is the mother of two grown sons, three daughters and an angel.
The angel is a fourth daughter who died of leukemia when she was 3. She has seven grandchildren.
All her children and grandchildren ask to take home-baked goods when they come to visit. Family and friends especially ask for her rolls, breads and lefse whenever there is a potluck.
"I've painted forever," she said of her primary hobby/mini-business. She works mainly in oils, often depicting traditional woodland scenes. She likes whimsical painting, too. She also molds clay and sews a lot of her own clothes.
She's just pleased she can continue to enjoy her family, friends and hobbies.
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