In the meanwhile, clear across the US in Pittsburgh, PA, I was happily going about my active life as a Christian mom, wife, and licensed beauty expert. I was healthy, energetic, and juggling my family responsibilities with my job at Sephora and volunteering at my church.
It's one thing to hear about hurricanes on TV when you live far away, especially when it doesn't touch your life in a negative way. It's another thing to walk through the devastation and trauma involved with the aftermath of natural disasters. Also, you don't know what you don't know. So if you've never personally experienced a horrific disaster and/or you don't have family who have personally faced it, you cannot comprehend or grasp the seriousness of it.
In the spring of 2006, a humanitarian nonprofit organization called Convoy of Hope came to my church to recruit volunteers for Hurricane Katrina and Rita. Convoy of Hope is a faith-based, international company with a mission to feed the world through children's feeding initiatives, community outreaches, and disaster response. The primary goal of Convoy of Hope is to bring help and hope to those who are impoverished, hungry, and hurting.
As a gentleman from Convoy of Hope shared with our congregation the great need to help the hurting folks in Louisiana, I silently questioned how someone like me, an ordinary gal, could get involved with a disaster outreach. Deep in thought, I suddenly was surprised to hear the list of volunteer work included licensed beauty professionals. Right there and then, my heart was convicted. I knew that I had to join this outreach.
The truth was that it took me so far outside my comfort zone. For one, my husband and I were financially struggling. We couldn't make ends meet. I had no idea how we could come up with extra money to afford my one week trip to LA. Second, I never did volunteer work out of state, nor had I ever been on a missions trip. It was intimidating and exciting all at once!
Despite my uncertainties, I did what most Christians do; I prayed for God to make a way where there seemed to be no way. Then I contacted the man at my church, Bill, who was the leader/coordinator of the LA outreach. Openly, I shared my interest in helping out and that I was struggling with financial challenges, which could prevent me to go on this trip.
Bill said that if I was willing to volunteer then he would find someone to sponsor me so I could attend. He didn't want my lack of income to cause me to miss this amazing opportunity to bless other lives. It was an answer to prayer! Once again, the Lord was faithful.
On Memorial Day in 2006, a group of ten men and women, including myself, bowed our heads in prayer before we began our long trek from Pittsburgh, PA to Lake Charles, LA. Upon our arrival, we camped out on the floor of a vacant classroom inside a church. Thank goodness for blow up mattresses and a sense of humor! I will never forget the ongoing fun we had by secretly placing a can of baked beans inside one another's sleeping bags. What a hoot!
Initially, our first few days in Lake Charles, LA were busy helping several families. Our group of ten broke up into smaller groups of five people. The group who I was with were busy doing construction work inside a home that had been damaged from the hurricane. On others days, we did dry wall, painting, and physical tasks in people's homes.
Never in my wildest dreams did I envision myself doing manly labor. Did I mention that I'm 100% a girly girl? Or that I typically don't get my hands dirty? It goes to show that when we are willing to follow God's lead, He most certainly can take us into new territory. He will grow our skills and our faith. I'm a perfect example of how the Lord uses the most unlikely person to do something so far off the beaten path.
On one day, a resident from LA drove our group to the areas that had the most impact from Hurricane Katrina and Rita. Speechless, I couldn't believe that even after one year of the disaster there was debris scattered all along the roadsides, in the swamps, and in the most strangest places. Refrigerators were on top of trees. There were TV's, computers, toys, clothes, and litter everywhere.
We drove by one neighborhood after another where homes were missing in action. All that was left was a mailbox or half a house with no walls or roofs. It gave me the most eerie feeling. As if the wicked hurricane reached down and swallowed an entire town.
The one memory that still gives shivers up my spine is when we walked through different homes that had been immersed underneath water following the ruinous floods. Mold, dirt, and slim were caked in every wall, floor, and ceiling. Clothes were half-fallen outside closets. Tables were overturned. And sadly, these homes had to be evacuated and left behind permanently.
While I carefully entered a home and walked over thick mud, I strolled into what had been the kitchen. Everything was in disarray. Although it was quite a mess, I was stunned by a Bible verse still framed to the wall. It's been over 10 years so I can't recall the exact verse. What I do remember is it being a tangible sign that even when our lives are shaken, God can't be shaken.
After the Convoy of Hope team arrived in Louisiana, over 100 volunteers from all over the US arrived for the weekend outreach. On a hot and sticky afternoon, we formed a large circle in which we put together nonperishable groceries to hand out that following day to LA residents.
At one point, it became so stink'n hot that a young woman passed out from heat exhaustion. Fortunately, my gut intuition jumped into gear fast. Shouting for help, right before the lady became unconscious and hit the cement, a man caught her. Thankfully, we found a volunteer who happened to be an RN who offered her nursing services to care for the ill patient.
The next day was the actual Convoy of Hope outreach at a local park. There was every imaginable ministry, service, and form of help available, including free medical services, food, face painting, children's amusement rides, and prayer.
I offered my beauty services along with a dozen other stylists. All haircuts and styles were free of charge. Our covered tent was packed with men, women, and children waiting in long lines to be pampered. Near the end of my shift, a little boy was so overjoyed by his handsome haircut that he handed me $1 as a tip.
Quietly, I told his mom that he didn't have to give me money because this was a free service. She whispered that it would make her son happy for me to accept it. Humbly, I thanked him for being so thoughtful. With a lump in my throat, I had to walk away to catch my breath. Tears ran down my face. Overwhelmed for the hellish ordeal that LA had to suffer, I cried for their losses and pain.
That evening as my church group drove away to return to Pittsburgh, I thanked Jesus for giving me the opportunity to touch other lives in a positive way. While the goal was to bless the hurting people in LA, I was the one who was immeasurably blessed.
Five months later, in November 2006, my health spun out of control. Without any logical reason and with no accidents or injuries, my body was aching all over. Following an X-ray and MRI of my low lumbar area, I was diagnosed with herniated discs, Advanced Degenerative Disc Disease, and scoliosis. The steroid medication that was meant to reduce my inflammation landed me in the ER in which I was admitted for further testing. The doctor said that I had acid reflux and to not continue taking Predisone as it can damage the gut and intestines.
In the beginning of 2007, I was under the care of an orthopedic specialist. Despite medications and physical therapy, I was still struggling with chronic pain. During that year, I continued working at Sephora as a makeup artist/salesperson, but it was becoming more and more difficult to perform my duties. Standing long hours on my feet hurt my back. Sitting for long periods aggravated my back. No matter what I did, minor or major, I was getting worse; not better.
What I thought was the strangest part of this mysterious illness was the fact that I had been perfectly fine. It blew my mind that I traveled across the US, volunteered for one week in LA, and was in good health. Yet five months after my Louisiana outreach, my health took a nosedive for no logical reason. How could this be?
By January 2008, my physical pain was excruciating. Due to my pain levels, I couldn't work. This led to my going back to the orthopedic specialist and spending three months in physical therapy. Rather than find relief, my body was on fire. Every cell within my being hurt.
In desperation, I sought the advice of a rheumatologist. Upon medical testing, he diagnosed me with Fibromyalgia. He agreed that my low lumbar area was another health concern, but he stated that my fibro was the "real" problem. Of course, he handed me prescriptions like most physicians do. The medicine that was supposed to help me sleep actually kept me wide awake all night long. Go figures!
After spending the next nine months with ongoing pain, inflammation, insomnia, depression, gut issues, constipation, brain fog, intense back pain, and a wide range of weird symptoms, I sought a second opinion with another rheumatologist. This particular specialist stated there are no tests for Fibromyalgia. Basically, it's trial and error. The goal was to test for anything and everything that remotely resembled Fibromyalgia. When all else fails and the blood work is negative, patients are told they have Fibromyalgia.
Good grief! After 34 tubes of blood in which they were all negative, it was confirmed that I have Primary Fibromyalgia. Shortly after, I was prescribed Cymbalta. Within four months of taking that drug, I encountered nonstop negative side effects. Rather than improve my health, it did significant damage. (For the longer version of this true story, check out my memoir, Harvest of Hope: Living Victoriously Through Adversity.)
As of today, it's been over 11 years since I went to Louisiana for the hurricane outreach. It still baffles me that my health was perfectly fine prior to going there. Yet within five short months, my health turned upside down. And from that point onward, I've dramatically struggled with numerous symptoms that have become debilitating.
What I've learned during research is this: A flood contains more than rain. Sewage systems spill their guts. Oftentimes, the flood water is contaminated. It can contain infectious organisms, fecal wastes, intestinal bacteria (E. coli), industrial chemicals, toxic agents, and many environmental hazards. The danger and risk is extremely serious.
I question what may be the correlation between natural disasters and chronic pain? Could one week exposure to mold or any other form of bacteria inside those flood damaged homes have triggered illness in me? How about those who lived in LA?
According to Fox News Health, "The hurricanes long-term effects on the devastated population's mental and physical health still linger. A study found increased sensitivity to mold in children with asthma whose homes were flooded. Being exposed to transient home situations, not being able to get access to care and the adversity of just the recovery process fraught with so many difficulties added and compounded the stress and trauma of being exposed to the devastation and personal loss of life and property during the event of the hurricane and the flooding itself."
Although I didn't live in LA, nor was I there for the actual hurricane, could being in flooded homes that have mold harm me? According to Dr. Jill, a functional medicine specialist and board certified in integrative holistic medicine, "Exposure to water-damaged indoor environments is associated with exposure to molds. Exposure to mold and mold components is well know to trigger inflammation, allergies and asthma, oxidative stress, and immune dysfunction in both human and animal studies."
Top Symptoms With Mold-Associated Illnesses:
- Fatigue and weakness
- Light sensitivity
- Poor memory, challenges with word finding
- Poor concentration, brain fog
- Morning stiffness, joint pain
- Tingling and numbness
- Sinus congestion, shortness of breath, chronic cough
- Appetite changes, body temperature goes haywire
- Increased urinary frequency, increased thirst
- Mood swings
- Sharp pain
- Blurry vision, red eyes
- Abdominal pain, bloating, GI distress
- Static shocks
- Vertigo, lightheaded, dizzy
- Muscle aches and pains
In my personal opinion, it's not coincidental that I have a large percent of those very symptoms since going on the LA outreach. And it's not ironic that 90% of those symptoms are identical to Fibromyalgia.
Oh, and let's not forget that I was never tested for mold, fungus, or a bacterial infection. Also, I want to add that in 2011, I became dramatically sensitive to a large volume of ingredients, including gluten (wheat, barley, rye, oats), and too many ingredients to list.
How very intriguing that colonizing molds, fungal, and bacterial infections are located in the gut. As we should be aware, the gut represents 80% of our health. These gut problems can turn into Leaky Gut Syndrome, especially when they are not addressed.
Quite frankly, I can't help but wonder if I legitimately have an undiagnosed mold/fungal illness, instead of Fibromyalgia? Unfortunately, conventional medicine only focuses on covering up the symptoms. They don't get to the root of the problem. Medications and procedures are simply Band Aids. It's not a cure. Rather, it keeps patients stuck in a vicious cycle of debilitating sickness.
As a huge believer in holistic health and plant-based diets, I'm going to continue doing research on the mold connection to chronic pain. In addition, I will continue my healing path using gentle, natural alternatives.
My big concern for the present time is that Texas floods from Hurricane Harvey could mean long-term negative consequences from breathing mold. The fungal growth can wreak havoc for health and potentially lead to chronic pain. Apparently, I'm not the only one worried about the health and well-being of the folks in Texas.
Did you live in LA during or after Hurricane Katrina and Rita? Do you presently live in Texas and have survived Hurricane Harvey? Were you a volunteer for an outreach following the natural disaster? Or were you ever exposed to mold or fungus? I am interested in hearing your stories so please feel free to share with a comment or contact me directly.