By Starrla Cray
LESTER PRAIRIE, MN It started about 10 years ago, with headaches, muscle pain, fatigue, confusion, and a hoarse voice.
For awhile, Patty Kuhlmann of Lester Prairie tried to ignore it.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “You try to convince yourself that it’s normal.”
She’d go to work, then come home and sleep until the next day.
After about two years of living in constant pain, Kuhlmann found a doctor who diagnosed her with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a chronic medical condition in which low levels of chemical exposure trigger health problems.
At that time, Kuhlmann didn’t have medical insurance, and she didn’t take the doctor’s diagnosis seriously.
“I continued the same lifestyle, and continued dealing with the symptoms I was having,” she said.
To make matters worse, the farmhouse where she and her husband, Mark, and three children Jonathan, Nathan, and Alicia were living had mold in the basement walls.
The cause of MCS isn’t well documented, but many researchers believe that exposure to mold and other toxins is a factor.
“It builds up in your system,” Kuhlmann explained.
As her symptoms worsened, Kuhlmann decided she was ready to hear some advice from the doctor who gave the diagnosis. However, he was no longer in the area, and she wasn’t able to locate him.
She saw an assortment of other doctors, but they weren’t sure how to handle the situation. Since MCS doesn’t show up in a blood test, it commonly goes undiagnosed.
Health problems from the disease can vary from mild to life threatening, and can include throat irritation, digestive problems, joint pain, headache, irritability, tenseness, spacey feelings, insomnia, loss of memory, aches and pains, dizziness, tiredness, eye discomfort, and many more.
A breath of fresh air
Two years ago, Kuhlmann met Certified Natural Health Professional Dorie Buck.
“She helped me see how the mold growing within my home, along with the products I was using, were harming me,” Kuhlmann said.
Desperate for relief, Kuhlmann moved into a pop-up camper in April 2010, and slept there until August.
“After being out in the fresh air, I realized how much the mold and chemicals were affecting me,” she said.
Now, Kuhlmann and her family are living in an apartment in Lester Prairie. Her symptoms improve if she is in a controlled environment, but she is unable to be out in public without repercussions.
Kuhlmann, who had a job in dietary and housekeeping at Glencoe Regional Health Services, hasn’t been able to work for some time.
“I started making so many mistakes at work, and I didn’t know why,” Kuhlmann said. “It got really frustrating.”
For Kuhlmann, the feelings of “being off in another world” are the worst part of the illness.
Kuhlmann’s youngest child, 17-year-old Alicia, said that when her mother is exposed to chemicals, she’s unaware of her surroundings and bumps into things.
Alicia and her mom would like to go shopping together, but when they’ve tried, Kuhlmann “pays” for it for an entire week.
Just walking by an air freshener, or sitting next to someone who is wearing perfume, can cause severe symptoms.
“I don’t need to smell it for it to affect me,” Kuhlmann said. “You pretty much don’t go anywhere. It’s like your own prison.”
Kuhlmann used to love going to her church, Our Savior Lutheran Church in Excelsior, but hasn’t been able to attend for months.
“My life has changed drastically,” she said. “I have to be very careful with what I eat, the products I use, and where I go.”
Having an illness that isn’t widely recognized can be frustrating, according to Kuhlmann.
“Many people don’t understand,” she said. “They say to just take allergy medicine or go to the doctor. It’s not that simple. You can feel so alone.”
Hope for others
By sharing her story, Kuhlmann feels that God will use her struggle with MCS to help others find hope and encouragement.
Kuhlmann said she believes that God does not make people sick or give them diseases, but that he has a plan and a purpose through hardships.
On her birthday, Jan. 9, Kuhlmann spoke about MCS and the dangers of mold and toxins to a group of about 40 people.
She would like to be invited to more speaking events in the future, so that others don’t have to learn the hard way, as she did.
“There are many different toxic chemicals in perfume,” Kuhlmann said. “People do not necessarily realize what chemicals are doing to them.”
Before, Kuhlmann said she didn’t seek out natural household products, and simply used whatever seemed economical.
“I used all of that,” she said. “I never gave it a thought.”
Various physical ailments could be a sign that chemicals are damaging the body, however.
“Eventually, it can catch up with you,” Kuhlmann said. “You try to cover it up and pretend that nothing’s wrong. That’s what I did. I just kept pushing, trying to tough it out.”
One of Kuhlmann’s doctors referred to her as a “canary in a coal mine” who can warn others.
“I thank God that I found people who understand, and I finally woke up to what was going on,” she said.
To learn more about the perils of chemicals, Kuhlmann recommends reading “Mold Warriors” by Dr. Shoemaker, and “Is This Your Child’s World” by Doris Rapp, MD.
People who would like Kuhlmann to speak to their groups can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (320) 395-2466. Kuhlmann also encourages people to contact her if they have their own mold or chemical story to share.