The Joe Walls Story
by Joe and Jodee Walls
They were living the American Dream. Their American Dream, anyway. Restoring their historic home together, coaching their two sons’ Little League teams, planning for the future. He was finally getting to use his biology degree as a water operator at a rural water plant. She was able to stay home with the kids. Life was good.
Until March 28, 1997. It was Good Friday, ironically enough. When Joe Walls came home, his wife, Jodee, asked him how his day was. He told her the fluoride pump had gone down again at the Kimzey Regional water plant, and when he attempted to investigate the problem, he was sprayed with 250 PSI of fluorosilicic acid as he removed the lines from the pump. He showed her what looked like a mild sunburn on his arms and upper body. Even his hands were burned, even though he had been wearing gloves, since the chemical splashed over the top of his rubber gloves and quickly filled them. Later Jodee found the outer shirt he had worn that day in the laundry and wondered why he hadn’t simply thrown it away, as the holes eaten in it from the acid made it fit for nothing but a dust rag. He was especially frustrated because when he went to wash the chemical from his body, he discovered the chemical shower in the plant wasn’t operational, so he had to do the best he could to clean himself in the sink.
He called the office to report the incident and made a note of it in the daily log. When he called, the office manager told him to come by the office before he went home for the day.
The week before Joe had injured his back unloading chlorine tanks from a delivery truck. He had seen his doctor, been diagnosed with a slightly herniated disc, and told to take off work for a week. When he went by the office the afternoon he was splashed with fluoride, the office manager said the doctor had released him for “light duty” work only. Because the water operation didn’t have any jobs considered light duty, he would not be allowed to work until his doctor reported him a fit for full duty.
Joe felt fine, his back was no longer bothering him, so he figured he would call the doctor Monday and request a full release. Little did he know that release would never come.
Over the course of that Easter weekend, he began feeling worse. Not only was his back hurting again, he was having pains in his neck that traveled down his right shoulder and arm. His right arm was in turns feeling pins and needles pricking it, on fire, or aching with a cold numbness. By Monday morning he was hardly able to move. He made another appointment with the doctor.
The next seven months were a debilitating nightmare of orthopedists, neurologists, and rheumatologists, as Joe became sicker and sicker, more and more unable to carry out simple tasks of daily living, in greater and greater pain. He experienced constant nausea and blinding headaches. He threw up daily, often hourly, lost fifty pounds, was hospitalized for dehydration. Doctors ruled out ALS, MS, RSD, and a host of other diseases and disorders with terrifying acronyms. No one could tell him what was wrong with him as he continued to lose muscle mass and bone density and his teeth cracked and crumbled and the pain became unceasing and excruciating. One thing the doctors did agree on: Whatever was wrong with Joe, it wasn’t caused by a back injury. Their only course of action was to prescribe ever increasing amounts of pain medicine.
In the meantime, the insurance wars were being waged. The Workers Compensation company suspected Joe of being a malingerer, of attempting a scam, of drug addiction. He was assigned a case manager. He was sent to a pain specialist for a test to determine if he was “faking” his pain. The test determined he wasn’t. Then Workers Comp determined that whatever was wrong with Joe, it was related to any incident that occurred on the job. They dismissed his claim. Joe and Jodee weren’t immediately concerned; they still had their regular health insurance, after all. No, that company insisted that Workers Compensation was responsible for covering Joe’s medical care.
Still no diagnosis, no health coverage despite faithful payments for health insurance, no income. They lost their house. They lost two vehicles. They moved in with Joe’s mother. Jodee went to work and went back to school. Joe lay in bed day after day, when he wasn’t limping to the bathroom to throw up. Their boys had to quit their ball teams, Cub Scouts, and tae kwon do. The older boy became sullen and confrontational. The younger boy woke every morning with screaming headaches. Jodee took the kids to therapy, doctors put them on anti-depressants. Her doctor increased her anti-depressant.
But something else happened on that visit to the pain doctor to determine the authenticity of Joe’s pain. Finally, in the presence of a medical professional, Joe had what he had been able to describe only as a “fit.” The right side of his body became ice cold, the pain took his breath away, and the ache traveling down his arm became unbearable. Dr. Ackerman measured Joe’s surface skin temperature and discovered that yes, indeed, the right side of his body was 4-6 degrees colder than the left side of his body. He asked Joe to describe his other symptoms. After listening to Joe recite his oft-repeated laundry list of health problems, he asked the question that changed everything.
“Where you in the Gulf War?”
“No,” Joe answered, truthfully. “Why?”
“This sounds like Gulf War syndrome. What about chemical exposures? Have you been exposed to any chemicals recently?”
And from there a mysterious illness unraveled. Joe eventually was introduced to Dr. Phyllis Mullenix, a pharmacologist and renowned toxicologist who at the time was Head of the Toxicology Department at the Forsyth Dental Center, a dental research institution affiliated with the Harvard Medical School. Dr. Mullenix spoke with Joe over the phone, described the symptoms of fluoride exposure, which matched Joe’s symptoms exactly, predicted what he would experience in the future, and advised him on steps to take to improve his condition.
Today Joe avoids fluoride as much as possible, but with fluoridation mandated in many cities, it is impossible to eliminate it entirely. His nausea and vomiting have decreased dramatically, but he still experiences ongoing digestive problems. He has permanent neuropathy in his hands. He has advanced osteoporosis. He has lost all his teeth. He has painful bone spurs and joint deformities. He is unable to participate in many of the activities he enjoyed before being exposed to fluorosilicic acid. After being 100% disabled for almost fourteen years, he has recently been able to return to the work force in a limited capacity. He still takes an enormous quantity of pain medicine to be able to function, but his pain and med intake has somewhat stabilized in the past six years.
He will never get back what he has lost. His health, the years he was unable to spend with his growing children, the time he would have spent with his wife. His family is still struggling to recover financially from the toll of loss of income, medical bills, and bankruptcy. The emotional scars won’t heal. He can only share his story with others and hope to prevent this happening to anyone else.