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Bad water put eyes at risk, Jefferson delegate says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An Eastern Panhandle delegate told fellow lawmakers Monday that she spent five days in the hospital and could have lost her eyesight after the Elk River chemical leak.

Speaking on the House floor, Delegate Tiffany Lawrence, D-Jefferson, said she developed a "severe" eye infection after showering with "flushed" water at a hotel in Charleston.

"I tell this story today, ladies and gentlemen, because I'm just one of the thousands of individuals who have undergone emergency care in response to the chemical spill," said Lawrence, a former Miss West Virginia and a House member since 2008.

Lawrence said her right eyelid became irritated following a shower on Jan. 14 -- after West Virginia American Water lifted its do-not-use water order for downtown Charleston. She initially reasoned that "seasonal allergies" had caused the irritation.

At a legislative committee meeting the next afternoon, Lawrence noticed a bump on her eyelid. She recalled putting warm compresses on her right eye for four hours that night.

"I woke the following morning to find my eye completely swollen shut," Lawrence said.

Lawrence went to the emergency room at Saint Francis Hospital, where she received antibiotics and steroids. A specialist cut a small incision above her eye, but the infection persisted, she said.

Lawrence waited a day before returning Saint Francis' emergency room. She was admitted to the hospital Jan. 19.

"I was given two rounds of [intravenous] antibiotics, a CT scan and MRI," Lawrence said.

A day later, Lawrence was transferred to Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, where she received more tests.

"I was told I could possibly lose my vision and the infection could possibly move to my brain in a few hours," she recalled.

The infection eventually subsided after "15 rounds" of antibiotics, and she was released from the hospital on Jan. 23.

"After enduring a very serious medical situation, I have felt firsthand the effects of such a natural disaster," Lawrence said Monday in the House chambers.

More than 500 people have been evaluated at hospitals with symptoms they report as being associated with the chemical leak, according to the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

Lawrence told lawmakers that Freedom Industries and the state Department of Environmental Protection must be held accountable for the Jan. 9 chemical leak that made water unusable for 300,000 people in nine West Virginia counties.

"We need to make sure we have adequate resources and staffing for inspectors," Lawrence said. "We must also do all we can to ensure this never happens again."

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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