What began as a surprise birthday celebration ended in a nightmare health scare for a local family and their friends on Dec. 10. While dining at River Ridge Tap House in Clemmons for her 30th birthday, Sheena Leonard, her husband Ricky, two small children, as well as more than 20 other guests with the party, had to be treated for carbon monoxide poisoning.
Carbon monoxide poisoning is known as the “silent killer,” Ricky Leonard said, and with good reason. There is no smell, no taste, no obvious physical signs that it is present in a room. The initial physical symptoms for patients experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning are very common and easily dismissed symptoms such as headaches and feeling light headed or nauseated, common symptoms of many other more innocuous health problems like cold or flu.
Leonard said he was experiencing what he described as a “splitting headache” during most the party, but chalked it up to mild dehydration as he remembered he hadn’t had very much to drink that day. Leonard is no stranger to the concept of carbon monoxide poisoning as he has worked in the fire service for most of his career and serves as the Yadkin County fire marshal. Nevertheless, he didn’t immediately come to this conclusion when he began having a severe headache.
What initially tipped off Leonard, as well as his brother-in-law Michael Werner, that something was amiss, was the odd behavior of their respective children.
Leonard said his 4-year-old daughter had a meltdown of epic proportion just before the cake was to be served. She claimed the reason for her distress was that she was extremely tired, something that Leonard found odd seeing as she had just had a nap before dinner. Usually a big fan of sweets, when his daughter fell asleep at the table without finishing her cake, Leonard began to suspect something was very wrong indeed. Werner’s daughter, age 11, was acting unusual as well. She even laid her head down on the table as if so tired she could not hold her head up any longer.
“The kids are what really triggered it,” said Werner. “My younger daughter was feeling very dizzy and my older daughter started experiencing headaches.”
Werner said he began feeling lightheaded, almost as if he had been drinking alcohol, which he had not. He stepped outside for a breath of fresh air and when he returned to the restaurant he noticed an alarm panel beeping. Having worked in building design with apartments, which have carbon monoxide detectors, Werner said he mentioned the alarm panel to Leonard and asked if that could be what was going on. Leonard began asking all the party guests if they were feeling OK and quickly learned that nearly everyone was experiencing headaches and so they quickly went into action, opening doors to let fresh air in and calling in help.
Though the alarm panel had nothing to do with the carbon monoxide, restaurants are not required to have carbon monoxide detectors, that, nevertheless, made the light come on for Leonard, who then asked one of the party guests, Jacob Wimmer, to call the Lewisville Fire Department. Wimmer is a volunteer firefighter in East Bend and on the staff of the Lewisville Fire Department as well.
When fire officials arrived on the scene, their carbon monoxide monitors immediately began going off and the restaurant was evacuated. Leonard noted that firefighters are required to put on special masks when the carbon monoxide monitors indicated a level of 35 parts per million or higher. The level when they entered the room was more than 400 parts per million.
In the parking lot of the restaurant, Leonard assisted local firefighters and EMS personnel in determining who was experiencing symptoms of the poisoning. Several individuals were treated with oxygen on site and more than 20 others from Leonard’s party, not to mention other guests in the restaurant, were sent to local hospitals for treatment.
The hardest part, for Sheena and Ricky Leonard, was knowing their children, 9-month-old Laura and 4-year-old Peyton, as well as their 9- and 11-year-old nieces were affected by this. Leonard was nearly in tears describing having to watch his young children suffer through an arterial blood stick in the hospital to determine the carbon monoxide levels in their system.
Following this dramatic ordeal, the couple has one goal in mind, to encourage businesses that use any type of gas appliances or heat to install carbon monoxide detectors. Currently, only businesses with sleeping areas, such as hotels, are required to have them. It’s a no-brainer, though, Leonard said, a $30 piece of equipment could have saved his family and friends from spending a miserable night in the hospital and thousands of dollars worth of medical expenses. Luckily there were no fatalities, but that small piece of equipment could save lives as well.
Through his work at the Yadkin County Fire Marshal’s Office, Leonard is planning to encourage changes to the law on the local level and state level through the Office of the State Fire Marshal. He already has met with County Manager Lisa Hughes to discuss this needed change.
“In light of this incident in Clemmons, we’re going to start looking at putting some carbon monoxide detectors in our public buildings, like at the Agriculture building because all those appliances in there are gas and that’s a large meeting place so were going to start with those and then expand it to all of our county buildings.”
Hughes said the board of commissioners will likely be considering a resolution that will be sent to the state Legislature in the new year to encourage a change in the law statewide to require any public building with gas appliances to use carbon monoxide detectors.
Leonard said he also wanted to remind individuals of the importance of having carbon monoxide detectors in their home as well. Any home that uses fuel burning appliances such as gas water heaters, gas logs, gas stoves etc., or have attached enclosed garages, should have carbon monoxide detectors on every floor of the home and within 15 feet of sleeping areas.
For more information about carbon monoxide poisoning, visit https://www.cdc.gov/co/faqs.htm.
Kitsey Burns Harrison may be reached at 336-679-2341 or on Twitter and Instagram @RippleReporterK.