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Environmental illness on the rise
Friday 21 January 2011
Environmental illness on the rise
Fall River health clinic seeing more patients than ever
Nestled behind a small plaza in Fall River is a medical facility that has quietly operated for 15 years.
The Nova Scotia Environmental Health Centre on Highway 2 is currently considered one-of-a-kind in the world. This year, the facility’s staff hope to increase public awareness about what they do and the patients they treat.
Walking into the foyer, visitors are met by a polite sign advising them to disinfect hands when entering and leaving the facility. Footwear must also be removed, and no scented products are allowed.
The facility takes a two-pronged approach to environmental illness. Research into environmental illnesses and patient treatment both take place under the same roof at the Capital Health facility.
This sets it apart from other facilities that focus solely on either research or treating patients, explained Tara Sampalli, the centre’s health services manager.
“We are quite unique because of the way we are set up (to do both). We even get referrals from the U.S., but it’s hard to keep up,” she said. “Researchers from Denmark (recently) visited us, as have others from elsewhere, to draw from our care model.”
When the environmental centre first set up shop under the auspices of Dalhousie University in the late 1990s, environmental illness was much talked about but little understood.
“The type of patients we see now has changed since 1996 when the centre opened. We still see people who are sensitive to things in the environment and become sick with exposure,” explained Jonathan Fox, one of two physicians at the facility.
“At the same time, many of those patients have other symptoms. Body pain, lack of energy, gastrointestinal symptoms. More people are being referred with body pain.”
Although health care providers today are seeing increasing numbers of patients with environmental illnesses, Fox said it is still not widely understood by the general public.
The facility manages between 400 to 450 active patients each year, with an average of 2,000 annual patient visits. About 100 out-of-province patients attend the clinic each year, typically coming from the provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Patients generally range in age from young teenagers to seniors, with a higher percentage of women between the ages of 40 and 50.
“Many of our patients come here without a diagnosis, they’re categorized as medically unexplained,” Sampalli said. “For many people it could be several years from the onset of symptoms before they come here.”
Patients needing the centre’s services typically suffer from some form of three general diagnoses. Multiple chemical sensitivity, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Multiple chemical sensitivity is described as a “chronic state of ill health characterized by the triggering of symptoms in various body systems.” This results in a person becoming intolerant of even low levels of foreign chemicals in the environment, including fragrances.
Fibromyalgia is described in the centre’s literature as a “chronic state of ill health characterized by muscle pain, while chronic fatigue is a “chronic state of ill health characterized by profound fatigue” that’s debilitating, physical and mental, and not relieved by rest.
The complex and varying symptoms experienced by each patient make it impossible to have treatment protocols that are set in stone. Sampalli said each patient’s treatment is highly individualized and takes in all aspects of health, including the physical, emotional, and psychological components.
“Someone can come here with multiple chemical sensitivity and another person will have the same thing but they’ll need different treatments. The diagnosis doesn’t really mean anything,” Sampalli explained. “One person may have fantastic family support and a fragrance free environment, while the other may have a moldy house and a workplace that’s very scented.”
Treatment involves working with patients to help them manage their conditions by controlling their own environments as best they can. Sampalli said the centre’s team approach allows patients to benefit from a variety of healthcare professionals. Physicians, nurses, a psychologist/psychotherapist, an occupational therapist and a dietician all make up their team.
Medical staff at the environmental health centre have published a number of medical papers focused on various aspects of environmental illness, including results of a double blind study to determine patient responses to suspected triggers.
“Individuals with chemical sensitivity do experience physiological changes to things like shampoo and dryer sheets,” Sampalli said.
Supervised exercise, sauna use, and IV therapy appear to have benefits for many patients and are offered at the centre.
“I’ve come here from a hospital (based model) and here it’s more of a team approach, multidisciplinary and about self management,” explained nurse Barbara Pike. “We want them to know their physical capabilities, how to know when their bodies are tired, how to help themselves. It’s all about teaching and giving the tools to self manage their chronic conditions.”
The article originally appeared here.
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