I grew up in a house with a long hallway with one wall shelved with books all the way to the ceiling. They were my mother's books, novels, history and all of her medical textbooks. She was an Osteopath who gave up her practice after marrying my dad and having children. I always loved to read and some of those books became my best friends through long lazy summer days in Texas. Since my mother was a doctor and my dad's father was a doctor, and we had all those medical books in the hallway, I took to picking them up and reading. Bones and tissue, organs and systems, all good. But it was the textbooks full of diseases that got to me. They were interesting, lots of then black and white photos of diseased organs, distorted faces and limbs. But it was the text, the symptoms, always the symptoms that got to me.
I would read them, and it would be almost as the words were processed, my body began to have and feel the symptoms. It would have been amazing, if it had not ruined my possibilities of pursuing a career in the medical field. But once symptoms were mentioned, I began to feel them, pain, swelling, but it was finally the hydrophobia that got me when I began to drool and not able to swallow anymore. I closed the book and the drooling stopped. I walked away never to open another medical text again.
I have purposely kept my distance all these years. Until this week. There were some berries out in our community garden that were interesting. Beautiful, round dark blue berries, like blueberries out of season. With the change of weather and the threat of frost, I called Martin Lively out to witness these plants and the berries. We had been talking about native chefs using native plants, so it felt all natural to reach over while showing him the berries to pluck one off and sample it. It tasted bland, but sweet, a berry that might make wine but not a good juicer. I spit it out and kept spitting to get all the bits of it out of my mouth. Something about the leaves reminded me of potato and tomato leaves and made me think of the nightshade family and all the warnings about "deadly nightshade" poisoning in old plays and early novels. I hadn't ever seen it in the wild or even pictures of it, but Google it and there it was, the plant in our garden fully outfitted with the berries and blooms. Just like in the picture, deadly nightshade. The description matched, but then the reading of symptoms and how many berries were needed for death to set in. About that time I began to tell Martin about the books in the hallway in the house I grew up in and then I began not to feel good. My heart began to race and I grabbed my key and took out to the Emergency Room at the hospital saying "Deadly Nightshade" and yes there is an antidote, I need it. They put me in a room and called Poison Control.
They never gave me the antidote, but monitored my heart rate for an hour and it steadily calmed and they released me. The nurse practitioner told me not to put things in my mouth I wasn't sure of. But the other message I knew about me was even better, DON'T READ THE SYMPTOMS unless close to an ER who has someone there to counsel me back from the dead and let me walk out alive. Deadly Nightshade Deadly can mean dead. Don't swallow the berries. It takes only 4 to kill an adult. I was certainly glad I stopped with one, didn't like it and spit it out.
The diagnosis on the discharge paper simply listed ingestion of toxic substance. Basing back to our culture, living off the land, grazing on the wild things, we had learned by watching the animals and learning from our elders how to use the plants growing in our territory, what to eat, what to avoid. This was a wake-up call for me and a new campaign. Parents go outside, take a walk and see if you find these berries, shiny plump inviting berries and get them pulled out of the ground, leave not a leaf or berry behind, do not add them to your compost pile, but solid waste them.
My campaign has been to have every yard sampled for lead and I have been on it for the last 20 years and I won't let up on it since we still have LOTS more properties left to have DEQ sample, but my second campaign will be something you can do yourself. Look for those plants with the dark shiny berries, long after the blueberry season has ended and get them dug up and removed just like DEQ will do if they end up finding lead in your yard.
Finally, something a regular person can do to protect our children and ourselves!
Respectfully Submitted ~ Rebecca Jim
Rebecca Jim is executive director of the LEAD Agency (www.leadagency.org).