Life is much different now than it was for Leesa Robinson just five years ago.
Back then, Leesa would spend three to four days a week seeing patients at the Wholistic Pathways Family Center, east of Carthage. She helped operate the family dairy at her home north of Joplin, and enjoyed a lot of family time. These days, it's all about survival and advocating for those also living with environmental illness.
In finding information, help and hope, Leesa came across the Jennifer Parker Foundation, a non-profit organization that strives to improve the lives of those suffering with environmental illness. Leesa said she found out she is not alone by any means.
According to the Jennifer Parker Foundation website: Environmental Illness is a chronic complex multi-organ illness, characterized by symptoms attributed to a single massive chemical exposure, or repeated low level exposure to toxic chemicals and other irritants in the environment, such as toxic mold. The overexposure leaves the body chemically and electrically sensitive to everyday chemicals that cause recurring symptoms from low level triggers. It can happen anywhere in your own home, workplace or school. It strikes without regard to age, race, gender, or economic background.
To raise awareness of those who struggle with environmental illness in the local area, a Walkathon has been set for 3 p.m. Sunday, May 5 around the Fair Acres Family YMCA walking trail. This is a nation-wide event, and for the first time will be held in Carthage.
Walk organizers are Gail Hurlbut (417-439-7134) and the Robinson's (358-7831). To register online, and to learn more about those who suffer silently, visit jenniferparkerfoundation.org/walk-signup.html.
“I cannot sit and wait for my home to be stripped away from me and do nothing,” Leesa said. “My family needs me … There's no doubt this will cause some distension. People are different, and we all have different thresholds our bodies can tolerate and process. Just because you don't see it or smell it doesn't mean it's not there.”
From several miles away, Leesa was a victim of the May 22, 2011 Joplin tornado. Not from the horrible wreckage, but the chemicals released into the environment after the storm. She described the agonizing pain that day (and days that followed), the bewilderment of what was happening to her and the two-year recovery that is still ongoing to this day.
Leesa was recommended to Dr. Elaine Carter in Springfield, Mo., who linked all of her symptoms to pesticides in the environment.
“I have seen several people who have been affected by the Joplin tornado,” said Dr. Carter. “What happens is the immune system becomes hyper-active after extreme exposure to certain antibodies with a common base in chemistry configuration. Then, when the immune system breaks down that exposes the person to other harmful entities, and that's what takes environmental illness into a wide range of problems. The only recovery is to refrain from being in an over-exposed environment until they can rebuild their immune system.”
Page 2 of 2 - Leesa suffered from lesions that covered 70 percent of her body, lost considerable weight, and lost a lot of time with her family. The family had to close the dairy in August, but is now back in operation. The storm is over, but for Leesa, her home is now a dangerous place.
The Robinson's farm is surrounded with neighboring farms who routinely crop dust. It's a normal chore for farmers, but Leesa must now leave her home every time the chemicals are released near her home.
“I resent that people label me as 'chemically sensitive,'” Leesa said. “While that is true, I am only because of the intensity of exposure and the repeated exposure in and around my own home backed by other immune system issues from the tornado.”
Leesa said she has only requested her neighbors call her ahead of time of crop dusting so that she may leave her home in plenty of time. She even contacted the crop dusting service. But her latest experience involved her leaving her home in less than 10 minutes.
“I felt like I was going to have heart attack,” she said. “And when I called the neighbor to talk to him about it he said I was 'disrupting his life.”
Finding other safe places to go is not an easy task for Leesa. Lately, the best getaway the family has found is Roaring River. But these days, she is living at the Wholistic Pathways Family Center where her husband, Mark, still practices.
“Virtually, I see patients on a daily basis that deal with similar problems as my wife,” said Dr. Mark Robinson. “Pesticides in the air, perfumes, lotions, mold in old buildings to air fresheners – they all fall in the same blanket of pesticides.”
Through all of the horrible times, the Robinson's say they have grown closer to each other and Christ.
“If I didn't have faith this would just be insanity,” Leesa said. “I don't ask why anymore. I ask God how it will help me advocate for others going through much worse than I.”
Leesa says her life has a re-found purpose, and she hopes she can make a difference.
“The Lord obviously still wants me here,” she said. “I feel like my life means so much more now. Not one day is wasted. Now when my grandchildren come over, it feels like a precious gift. I feel I am blessed to have the information I have. It's not my intent to place blame, but spread awareness that there are people out there silently suffering … Living isolated across the nation. It's not about trying to offend anyone … I just take one day at a time.”