Personal Essay: Three Keys to a Better Life

three-keys-escape-gameIt all started with a bag of keys. Each key was different varying in shape, size, and color. This is how I started my new job as the senior lifeguard of a county pool. My boss handed me the bag of keys before we walked around the newly renovated facility. There were at least a hundred unlabeled keys in the tattered bag. He didn’t know which key would fit into each lock. That was something I would have to figure out on my own.

I had been hesitant to accept the job when they first offered it to me. There were rumors floating around that bad things had happened at the pool. The past two managers had quickly left the job claiming that something in the building had made them sick. My boss informed me that they were money hungry liars trying to sue the county. Some people believed the pool was haunted because it rested on ancient burial grounds.

At the time, it was all hearsay and I chose to ignore the gossip, but I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of managing a pool. I liked to come home from work and leave the job behind, but as a manager that wouldn’t be possible. I also had a small son to look after and I wanted to spend as much time with him as I could while he was still young. Finally, I agreed to take the job because everyone was encouraging me to do it. Talk about giving into peer pressure.

The orientation on that first day ended up just being a walk through with my boss. He didn’t know much about the mechanical side of the pump room, but I felt confident that I could manage with my five years of previous lifeguard experience at another pool. One thing that started to bother me on that first day was how he felt the need to reassure me that everything was safe. He made sure to show me all the changes they had made to the facility and a question began to gnaw away at my mind. If the facility had been safe in the first place, then why did they feel the need to renovate it? The very next day, I got my first nosebleed, the first of many.

When I called to tell my boss about the nosebleed he became distant and cold. An appointment was scheduled with the county doctor and I found myself sitting on the paper sheet in the doctor’s office. I had already been to this doctor for a few job related checkups and he had always been nice, but this visit was different. He showed a lot of anger toward me and even raised his voice beyond a professional level. He said the county would fire me if I continued to cause problems. As an inexperienced twenty-five year old I had no idea how to handle the situation. I left his office in shock.

By the end of the first week I knew I was in way over my head, but I wasn’t a quitter. My job description included a lot since the county had cut back on job positions at the pool. There used to be two custodians and four lifeguards at the pool in the past, but now all I had was a weekend lifeguard that came in to work with me for four hours every Friday.

When I first started, I was told that hardly anyone showed up to swim at the pool and I would have a lot of free time to finish all my tasks. That didn’t turn out to be the case. I found myself on surveillance with a pool full of swimmers. I only had a small amount of time to clean the bathrooms and finish all the paperwork every day. On top of all that, more than eighty kids signed up for the novice swim team program that first year and most of them had no experience with the sport.

That first year was a hard one while I tried to learn everything I needed to know about the pool. I taught swim lessons, coached the novice swim team, and struggled to complete all the tasks that needed to be done. I used to joke around with my family and friends telling them that I did five job positions in one. I was a lifeguard, a swim instructor, a coach, a custodian, and a manager. I figured it was better to keep a light heart and try not to stress out over the situation.

As time went by I continued to get nosebleeds. At first I would get them about once a week, but they soon became a daily event. I usually got a nosebleed after leaving the pump room. I also noticed that my nose and throat would itch, but as much as I tried to figure it out I still couldn’t link the condition to anything other than the pump room. I called in OSHA, safety inspectors, and chemical specialist to see if they could figure it out. No one could find anything that was a cause for concern.

By the third year into the job I was defeated. I had daily nosebleeds, flu like symptoms, skin rashes, and breathing issues. Every doctor I saw was stumped and all the specialist I had brought in couldn’t find anything in the facility that would cause these problems. My own family and friends didn’t even believe me anymore. I became known as the crazy girl, a head case that caused her own illnesses.

I felt so alone and I should have quit then, but my husband had recently lost his job which left me with the financial pressure until he could find another job in a poor economy. It wasn’t just about the money anymore either. All things considering, I loved my job, the community had become like family to me, and I felt a huge amount of joy every time I taught someone how to swim. If it weren’t for the political crap that came with working for the county and the elusive illness no one could figure out I would have said it was the perfect job for me, a dream job. Unfortunately nothing is perfect and as time went by my condition was getting worse.

“That job is killing you.” Those were the words I heard from my doctor four years in. I had started coughing up blood and was on all kinds of medications. My doctor didn’t know what was making me sick, but he was the only one that had started to believe my illness was somehow linked to the pool.

I called my boss later that day and told him what my doctor had said. He called me back the next day and said the county was going to fly in a chemical specialist that was well known for finding invisible issues. I decided that if the specialist couldn’t find anything I was going to quit my job and let it go.

About a week later the chemical specialist showed up and thoroughly inspected the pool. I was busy teaching swim lessons throughout most of his investigation, but I went to check on him when he was down in the pump room. He had been down there for over an hour and I found him in the muriatic acid room. He was staring down at the ground with a clipboard in one hand and a clear plastic tube in the other. I had a feeling he found something and I asked him how it was going. He refused to give me any information, but I could tell he knew something.

After the chemical specialist left I called the main office every day to see if they had heard back from him. I never received an answer and I got the feeling that I was being put off. Then one morning, a lady called from the main office and told me they had heard back from the specialist. She said something had been found, but no one was supposed to say anything to me until they figured out what they were going to do.

Thankfully, she had a conscience and told me what the inspector had found. The exhaust fan in the muriatic acid room had never been replaced during the renovation. Tiny particles of insulation were breaking off and blowing around inside the small room. The insulation was ninety-five percent fiberglass soaked in formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals. I was going down there every day, twice a day, and inhaling fiberglass into my body. It was cutting up my skin, my nose, my throat, and my lungs. I now had the answer to what was making me sick. It was the phantom substance that had been tearing me up for nearly five years.

I called the county’s safety inspector to inform her that I knew about their attempt to cover up the incident. She seemed surprised that I had found out and wanted to know who had squealed. She kept shouting “Who told you!” At that point I was furious and said that I couldn’t believe they would keep this kind of information from me. “Well, I don’t see what the big deal is. It’s not like it’s going to kill you.” Those were the words she used to blow me off as if I were just some stupid employee that didn’t know a thing about hazardous materials. I hung up and considered sending her a box of fiberglass for Christmas before reminding myself that I was better than that.

If the lady from the main office hadn’t been brave enough to tell me what was causing my illness, I would have continued inhaling those little shards of glass until they decided to let me in on their secret. The county was going to continue letting me get exposure until they could figure out a way to cover it up. They were not worried about my health, but about finding a way to avoid a lawsuit. That was the day I knew my career with the county was over. There was no way I could continue working for someone who treated their employees like disposable rags. In their eyes, I was just a warm body filling one of their many job positions and when I turned in my resignation form there would be a line of fresh new meat waiting to take the job. I was done.

I called the two previous lifeguards who had also gotten sick and told them what I had found out. Even though they had been away from the fiberglass for years they still had health issues and had to take multiple medications. One of them cried on the phone for over an hour and the other one was so upset he wouldn’t stop yelling. They were so bitter and angry about what had happened to them. I found out they were still trying to sue the county and this information would help them, but it would still be years before they would see an end to their lawsuits.

A lot of people think I should have sued the county after what they did to me, but after talking to the other lifeguards that had been injured I chose not to. Their lives were consumed by their injuries, but I didn’t want this incident to define my life. I knew how the county operated and if I had decided to sue them my life would have been filled with nothing but court hearings and lawyers. The county lawyers would run me around in circles until the stress would have either killed me or I would have become too exhausted to continue fighting. I chose to walk away and leave the past behind me.

I left the pool knowing that I had done my best and it was time to start living for myself again, not for a job. I felt satisfied that I had accomplished a lot for the pool and community. The facility could now be unlocked with three keys, the office had been organized, and hundreds of kids had learned how to swim like fish every summer.

I can’t say that I never feel angry or hurt about what happened to me. Sometimes I still struggle with bitter feelings about the way I was treated, but I’m happy to say that I am feeling better now. I’m sensitive to chemicals, I still get shortness of breath and have coughing fits, but I can’t tell you the last time I had a nosebleed or felt extremely sick.

I don’t think my life would be the way it is today if I hadn’t gone through that experience. My entire lifestyle has changed because I learned a very valuable lesson. My life has value and it’s a gift worth cherishing. I am worthy of love, not only from others, but also from myself. I will never put myself in a situation like that again and I will always say no to anything that is not right for me.

Today, I’m at home working on my first novel. I’ve always wanted to write a book and now I’m making that dream a reality. My son is sitting close to me reading one of his favorite stories and I’m thankful for the time I get to spend with him. Later today, we’re going to go outside and ride bikes together.

I glance up at a set of keys hanging on the wall. They shine in the sunlight coming in through the window. It’s a reminder, the only reminder I keep to remember the lessons I’ve learned. It all started with a bag of keys and it ends with three shiny new keys, one for my health, one for my happiness, and one for my dreams.

*Have you ever gone through something that changed your life?

Aloha ~ Cassie

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About Cassie Holmes

Writer, Reader, Runner, Coffee Addict, Hawaii Life, Wife to a Musician, Mom to a Video Game Nerd, Cat Lady, Possible Alien
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