The Rickety Desk: Book chronicles a long hard struggle with illness


August 13, 2021

A recently written book by Esko area resident Elaine Osborne confronts the reader with questions about what we believe and why. “If I Felt Alone” is the story of Osborne’s struggle against the personal devastation of environmental illness and the challenges of being heard, understood and believed by a world that does not always listen well.

While living in her rural Esko home back in the early 1980s, Osborne was persistently exposed to toxic industrial and residential waste. A large sewage line adjacent to her property had ruptured repeatedly, closing the road to her new home, killing her trees and contaminating her water supply.

Osborne’s account of her attempts to get her well water cleaned up pales in comparison to the medical and legal nightmares she experienced in the aftermath of the sewage spills. Her story of becoming gravely ill while searching for a doctor who would recognize the validity and seriousness of her illness was heartbreaking. Osborne was unable to find a legal team to effectively support her claim of illness induced by the toxic spills.

The study of environmental illness lies around the edges of conventional medicine; medical science is working on it. For the rest of us — like so many things in life — we might not believe it to be real until we experience it ourselves.

Needing more evidence than the symptoms presented, Osborne’s personal physician attributed her severe nausea, vomiting and blackouts to self-induced stress. She wrote in Osborne’s medical record that Osborne needed to “get hold of herself.”

So it is that Multiple Chemical Sensitivities is still a disputed condition in the medical community. But, an estimated 55 million Americans suffer health problems brought on by exposure to everyday household chemicals.

As her illness progressed, Osborne found that simply exposure to scented cleansers and air fresheners could now trigger debilitating symptoms. Friends, neighbors, and even family members began to doubt that those symptoms — caused by ordinary chemicals on and all around us — could be real.

Understandably, Osborne began to feel isolated and alone. She was physically sick, but the medical community and many of those close to her seemed to believe that hers was an emotional or mental condition.

As a reader, I found myself challenged by my own competing belief and disbelief in Osborne’s story. I believed everything Osborne wrote about the severity of her symptoms and the likelihood that toxic waste exposure was at the root of her illness. But part of me still wanted proof that the medical community, and even the sewage pipeline operator, could possibly be so wrong in their denial of her condition and its causes.

In a wider medical context, we’ve seen this same kind of dissonance and disbelief in the nearly 50-year debate around what medical conditions the Veterans Administration will consider to be Agent Orange-related. In June, the VA’s “Agent Orange Presumptive Conditions” list was expanded, allowing it to provide benefits to more veterans exposed to this toxic chemical.

Why has this taken so long?

A similar debate continues around the Gulf War Syndrome experienced by more recent veterans of the first Gulf War.

It often happens that how we form our views simply comes down to whom we choose to believe. A large class of people (Vietnam or Gulf War veterans) may have a somewhat easier time convincing others of the truth of their experience. But when the choice is between a lone voice crying in the wilderness and a previously trusted source, we are far less likely to give full credence to that solitary voice.

In a social justice context, witness the testimonies before the U.S. Senate of professor Christine Blasey Ford and professor Anita Hill before her — competent voices sharing compelling, firsthand accounts of the misdeeds of federal high court nominees. Powerful people chose to disbelieve or simply ignore their lone voices.

We often struggle to believe whistleblowers or lone truth tellers.

Back home in Esko, Osborne’s life goes on.

I spoke with her recently and learned she is still challenged by what she believes to be toxin-induced environmental illness. She finally found a respected physician who helped her detoxify and understand her physical illness more clearly. After performing a full day of medical tests and examinations, he told her: “Your doctor believes you.” In her isolation, those were words she desperately needed to hear.

At that point Elaine Osborne no longer felt alone, and she wept.

Tim “Mothy” Soden-Groves is a thinker, writer, musician and humorist from Carlton.


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