RACELAND, La. (CN) – A bayou detoxification program is helping ill coastal residents, many of whom lack health insurance nearly 2 years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. By most accounts the treatments have helped, and thanks to donors they are free.
Michael Robichaux, an ear, nose and throat specialist, former state senator, and self-described “populist doctor” is running the clinic with chemical detox veteran Jim Woodworth of New York. Woodworth has provided the clinic with staff and funding.
Robichaux, 65, told Courthouse News in an interview that identifying illness from chemical exposure is difficult: “Nothing shows up on blood work. Nothing shows up on brain scans, nothing shows up on MRIs, anything.”
Robichaux said what he is seeing appears identical to the reports of symptoms still haunting veterans exposed to toxic chemicals during the first Gulf War.
“Identical – they are identical problems,” Robichaux said, picking up a 2008 report on Gulf War illness. “The symptoms are coming from different chemicals, causing the same problems: ‘Association with diverse biological alterations that most prominently affects the brain and nervous system,’ – exactly what I’m seeing. ‘Not explained by routine medical evaluations … symptoms that typically include a combination of memory and concentration problems, persistent headaches, fatigue and widespread pain.’
“Those are exactly the symptoms I just told you,” Robichaux said, “and it’s exactly what I hear every day.”
BP and plaintiff attorneys in the oil spill litigation announced a settlement March 2, pending court approval, that would provide medical care for Gulf Coast residents, including medical monitoring for 21 years.
But if oil spill-related illnesses are indeed similar to Gulf War illness – caused by exposure to toxins – the question remains how physicians will treat it.
In the past two decades, the U.S. government has spent almost $1 billion to understand and treat Gulf War illness, yet the 2008 government report on the condition says that no satisfactory treatments are known.
The reportfrom the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veteran’s Illnesses states: “Gulf War illness is a serious condition that affects at least one fourth of the 697,000 U.S. veterans who served in the 1990-1991 Gulf War. …
“No effective treatments have been identified for Gulf War illness and studies indicate that few veterans have recovered over time.”
Despite this depressing conclusion from the 465-page report, Robichaux and Woodworth say their treatment plan at the Gulf Coast Detox Project is working.
“Something Jim [Woodworth] said before we got started here that’s panned out to be absolutely true is that the patients get better,” Robichaux said.
Called “Dr. Mike” by his many admirers, Robichaux has an easy Southern-gentry manner, mixing warmth with intensity.
“So I’ve gotten over the gap [of uncertainty] and I know it’s true because it’s worked – it’s worked remarkably well so far,” Robichaux said.
Woodworth’s previous detox centers include two New York City facilities set up after 9/11 to treat rescue workers exposed to toxins.
“Jim’s role here has been critical, and none of my patients would be well if it weren’t for him and the donors who are paying for this program,” Robichaux said. “He is the true hero of our success. Without his assistance none of our endeavors would have been successful. He’s really amazed me. He came into a completely alien environment to treat a group that is largely poor and needy, and the results have just been wonderful.”
How it Works
Patients spend around 30 days at the clinic, mixing daily exercise with vitamin supplements, nutritious meals and sauna treatments.
“The theory behind how the detox program works is you exercise, you take niacin. Niacin is lipolytic, it breaks down the fats, and when you break down the fats, you shear off some of the toxins with the fats,” Robichaux said.
“The program involves taking fats to replace the fats that you’ve sheared off – the fats that were attached to the toxins, and perhaps are still attached to them – and then you sweat out the toxins, and the toxins can come out.”
A young mother from Buras, La. brought her husband and two children to the detox center after seeing several other doctors.
Kindra Arnesen said that in September 2010 her 10-year-old daughter began suffering high fevers, continuous sinus infections, nausea and frequent heart palpitations.
Arnesen checked her daughter’s school records and found she had been pulled from school 3 times more often and had missed 5 times more days than previous years.
“You have to understand,” Arnesen said, “we brought these kids to doctors over and over and over again. Numerous doctors. We even went to children’s hospital and had several tests run to see if they could come up with a reason, a solid diagnosis of why she was getting sick. …
“They say it’s allergies; they say it’s a sinus infection; they say it’s a chest infection; they say ‘Oh, well she has a stomach virus,’ when she started with the stomach pains.”
Finally, Arnesen took her family to the detox clinic.
“I was skeptical at first,” she said. “I really was, I didn’t think – you know, I was just at the end of my rope. My husband had been sick nonstop; every time I turned around he was sick. I had the severe headaches, the stomach issues, the skin issues where I was breaking out in rashes all over, and my little boy just seemed to be sicker … but nowhere near as bad as what my daughter or my husband was.”
Arnesen said Robichaux’s treatment worked.
“My little girl is not 100 percent, but she’s much better than what she was before.
“We came right back into a toxic situation, and I know that once someone gets exposed to the extent that it makes them sick that sometimes they develop chemical sensitivity. So I’m wondering if what she’s experiencing now is the continued exposure here where we are.”
But Arnesen said her daughter’s “heart palpitations have stopped. She’s not nauseated on a daily basis, she’s not crying, and she’s playing. She’s up and running around and doing things. She was a shell of herself before we went to the detox center.”
Drew Landry, a 37-year-old documentarian and musician from Lafayette, recently completed the program.
“First of all, I think there are a lot of people that are sick that are scared,” Landry said in a telephone conversation with Courthouse News.
During the oil spill, Landry said he spent time “going to the most oiled areas, taking pictures, bringing reporters, documenting communities and working to advocate for their issues.”
“Early on when people had health concerns, I would get calls from sick people and Dr. Mike was the only person that would actually give these people advice and would talk to them about their problems,” Landry said.
In July 2010, with gushing from BP’s broken wellhead, Landry brought his guitar to an oil spill commission meeting in downtown New Orleans and played a song he wrote for the panel: “BP Blues.”
Landry told Courthouse News he enrolled in the detox clinic to address his fatigue.
“For me, basically, everybody who’s went through left there feeling better and being more productive,” he said.
Have there been people who have not done well at the clinic?
Robichaux said there have been some cheats – people who fibbed about their situation for personal gain, then ran off.
“Those people haven’t done exceptionally well,” Robichaux said.
Then there is John Gooding, a resident of Bay St. Louis, Miss., who is extremely sensitive to the oil and dispersant that washed up just outside his beachfront house.
Within months of the oil spill, Gooding developed the regular symptoms, in addition to seizures, and a condition Robichaux calls “stuck stupid,” in which Gooding slips into a state in which he cannot move or talk.
Gooding, a carpenter, built the prototype sauna for the detox center. But to go through the treatment himself, Gooding would have to stop taking his seizure medication, and that is something he does not want to do.
“The good news is the seizure medicine I’m taking, seems to be the longer I take it the better control I have over the seizures,” he said, acknowledging that the decision not to undergo detox has disappointed some, among them his former attorney, who he says dropped him as a result.
The attorney did not return calls for comment.
The doctor Gooding is seeing now told him that once the toxins are in his brain and he has neurological damage and are having seizures, it is too late.
“If you wait too long, you’re not going to get better from any kind of treatment. That’s the bottom line,” Gooding said.
“I used to have a good life. Even after Katrina, we still – we still recovered. I don’t think I’m going to recover from this,” Gooding said.
Kindra Arnesen added: “I don’t think there’s anything right now that’s in existence that would be a cure-all for the exposure we’ve encountered. And that was never the way that it was explained to us – to be a cure-all.
“But as far as Dr. Mike goes, you know, we discussed bringing the children back into the [toxic] area.
“He looked at me and he said, ‘You’re going to eventually have to move.’ Which, I knew that a year ago, that we were going to have to move. It’s just been, you know, it’s kind of hard for me to say, ‘Well, OK, we’re just going to up and leave tomorrow,’ when we have so much invested here.
“We have our home, our restaurant – two businesses here. … We were in the process of getting our things in order still from rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina when this all happened.
“Basically, I’m just waiting for the house to sell, and I’m heeding his advice, and we’re going to move.
“It’s going to be hard. To start over in another fishery is going to be really difficult.”
Arnesen’s daughter entered.
“Hi there, sweet pea. She just walked in here. She doesn’t feel good. I know she doesn’t feel good. That’s why I really think there’s an issue of continued exposure.
“Yeah, I know there is. All the guys were sick. Just this past two weeks, sicker as a dog down here just because – I know it’s because they were spraying all that crap down river.
“They had an oil spill. Sprayed it down. That’s the new method of fixing the situation.”
The April 10, 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon killed 11 people and dumped 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Two million gallons of toxic dispersant was applied to the surface to break up the oil slicks.
Raceland is about 35 miles southwest of downtown New Orleans.