In a brief moment, Elizabeth McGee’s life was turned upside down when she accidentally inhaled cleaning chemicals while at work. The chemicals burned her lungs and larynx.
She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t stop coughing and felt a constant stabbing pain in her chest. Her voice was reduced to a very light whisper. Elizabeth spent the next two years in and out of emergency rooms and the intensive care unit (ICU).
“No one could tell me what was going on,” she said. “I was desperate to find something.”
The loss of her voice was devastating. “Communicating was extremely difficult,” Elizabeth said. “I would use claps to get attention. I didn’t do much socially.”
Her primary care doctor suggested that she call Lung Line at National Jewish Health, a free information service staffed by registered nurses who provide educational information on lung, allergic and immune diseases.
Finding Answers and Her Voice
Elizabeth was referred for an appointment at National Jewish Health with Ronald C. Balkissoon, MD. Two years after her accident, she finally found the answers she was looking for.
“Dr. Balkissoon was the first doctor who could do a bronchoscopy to see what was going on in my lungs,” she said. “Every other time a doctor tried to do it, I ended up in the ICU on a ventilator.”
Elizabeth learned that the chemicals had caused scarring and inflammation in her lungs. Dr. Balkissoon also saw that she had a condition called silent aspiration, where acid was refluxing from her stomach into her lungs and causing further irritation. Elizabeth underwent a procedure to fix the aspiration and was also prescribed a regimen that includes Heliox, which is similar to oxygen therapy. It is lighter than air, allowing it to penetrate more deeply into the lungs when she inhales it.
For the next 10 years, she came to National Jewish Health for annual appointments with Dr. Balkissoon and speech therapists, who helped her find her voice again.
“The last time I went to speech therapy, I could finally make sounds that were more than a whisper,” she said. Now she is able to talk without difficulty.
‘Not Just Existing’
Elizabeth is able to manage her care from her home state of Texas now, where her doctors work closely with Dr. Balkissoon.
“By doing what he recommends, I haven’t been in the emergency room or hospital in the last five years.”
She and her husband, Jerry, have begun to travel again, with plans for a trip to Alaska this summer. They have also become donors to National Jewish Health, setting up a charitable gift annuity (CGA).
A CGA through National Jewish Health provides fixed income for life, while also supporting the mission of the hospital. There are tax benefits to CGAs as well. The initial gift is partially income tax-deductible and the CGA payments are partially income tax-free.
“I want others to experience what I did,” Elizabeth said. “If you have lung problems, they give you an answer. National Jewish Health saved my life. Now I have a life that I can enjoy; I’m not just existing.”
Lung Line is a free information service for health care consumers provided by National Jewish Health. Registered nurses who have years of clinical experience provide educational information on lung, allergic and immune diseases.
Since Lung Line began answering calls in 1983, the staff has provided answers to more than 1.35 million contacts. Lung Line and Physician Line nurses also assist in the scheduling process for those interested in a new pulmonary, allergy, rheumatology or immunology evaluation at National Jewish Health.
Learn more about how you can support patients at National Jewish Health