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Oil Impact on Seafood; Tracking Cleanup Health Effects; Brain- Injured Mom Kept from Kids

Aired July 10, 2010 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN HOST: Good morning. Welcome to SGMD.

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta, coming to you today from New Orleans where we are focusing on the health impact of the oil disaster.

Now, as you know, for more than 80 days now, oil has been gushing into the Gulf. One of the big questions we want to answer today: how is seafood affected?

We had exclusive access to the government lab where the seafood you might be eating is tested. We'll get you some answers.

Also, how many clean-up workers are getting sick? Well, the answer, more than 1,500 -- at least to according to BP's physician in charge of the company's medical response. We'll have that conversation as well.

And I met with a mother who nearly died after giving birth to triplets. Her children haven't seen her since they were a year old -- a CNN exclusive. Stay tuned for Abbie's story.

Let's get started.


GUPTA: Here in New Orleans, the restaurants are open, the food is great, especially the seafood. And as we've been saying for weeks now, it's also safe to eat.

A lot of people are still asking, how can you be sure? Well, today I'm going to show you with an exclusive look at the government's lab that tests seafood coming out of the Gulf.


GUPTA (voice-over): Behind these doors, huge decisions are being made. Tests that determine whether or not the seafood in the Gulf is safe for us to eat -- it looks like a scene straight out of a crime scene show.

(on camera): What you're looking at is a chain of custody record. That's because the fish that are being tested are literally treated like evidence. You've got to keep track of where it's been and who's handled it. This is the test facility. These are fish over here that are being tested, trying to figure out if, indeed, they are safe -- aluminum foil, special instruments, workers wearing gloves. They want to be very careful not to contaminate any of this fish to make sure their records and testing is as accurate as possible.

(voice-over): Thousand of fish are being tested since April 28th. That's just a week after the oil spill. They are being brought here in these huge ice units.

(on camera): And we're here in Mississippi. You got a lot of fish behind us here.


GUPTA: Bagged and tagged.

STEIN: Bagged and tagged -- yes, they are, very important, to know where they come from.

GUPTA: This is part of the process?

STEIN: This is part of the process.

GUPTA (voice-over): Dr. John Stein, he's head of NOAA's Seafood Safety Testing Program.

(on camera): If you go around the country, John, and you talk to people about what's happening here in the Gulf. The question that always comes up: is the seafood safe?


GUPTA: And you say?

STEIN: Yes. We have an extensive program in place, it's a cooperative program between NOAA, FDA, EPA, the Gulf states, and we're all working together to ensure that the seafood is safe.

GUPTA (voice-over): But no one can be sure. And that's because we don't know exactly how much oil is leaking -- and more importantly, exactly where it is going.

(on camera): We've been talking with a lot of scientists and you may know some of this. But they say, the oil as it starts to break up ...


GUPTA: ... you get all of these various compounds that are not oil, so to speak, anymore. And they're just -- aromatic hydrocarbons, this smaller compounds.


GUPTA: And they can go overall over the place. And that's what I think makes it so difficult.

How do you know if it's not oil per se but it's still some of the toxic elements and end up further away in an area that doesn't have oil?

STEIN: Correct. So, that's why this testing program deals both with the sensory, to be able to detect oil and those aromatic hydrocarbons, and then the analytical chemistry to also detect those aromatic hydrocarbons.

GUPTA: So, we give a little peek behind the curtain into this room, is where sensory testing takes place. Now, they have typically testers all up and down here. And one of the first things you do is actually, this is uncooked fish, and just get a little smell of this. And then determine what you think the score is, what the likelihood that this is contaminated.

(voice-over): The next step, the taste test.

(on camera): So you've got your nose, you've got your sense of smell working. And now is the sense of taste.

They pointed out to me that even if this was contaminated, even a small apartment like this, would not be problematic. You eat this but you don't swallow it, they say, because you don't want to ruin the rest of your testing -- so here it goes.

It tastes pretty good as well. I'm not an expert. That seems pretty good to me.

(voice-over): The researchers say a contaminated fish has a distinct taste. It's unmistakable. If all of this sounds subjective to you -- you're right. That's why there are 10 different testers, all of them hidden from each other. They can't even see each other's reaction while they're testing.

But all of these tests are only for oil compounds. It turns out no one is testing these fish for possible contamination by that controversial dispersant Corexit.

(on camera): Two-dioxy-butane, I believe, it's called. One of the -- one of the particularly toxic chemicals, the Corexit, you can't -- there's no chemical test that's being done right now.

STEIN: There's no -- there's not a chemical test for that right now.

GUPTA (voice-over): What? No test. So, how can the guarantee of safety be complete?

We decided to dig deeper to clarify.

NOAA says, out of an abundance of caution, they are currently developing a chemical test for dispersants. It just isn't ready yet.

And it can't come soon enough for the millions of people who want to eat this fish and those who make a living catching them.

(on camera): Based on everything you know now, how long is it going to stay closed?

STEIN: It's going to stay closed until the well -- the oil leak is stopped. Once the oil leak is stopped, then we'll have a very aggressive and very comprehensive survey of that area for reopening.


GUPTA: Now, the seafood might be safe, but how much of it is still available here in the Gulf? We get a reality check from one oyster fisherman. Take a look.


VLAHO MJEHOVICH, OYSTERMAN: There's a lot of dead oysters right here, in this spot, the last time I was out here.

Everything is dying -- little ones, everything. That's dead. That's dead. That's dead. It's all within two weeks, dead.

After so many days, this is a fresh kill, all dead. It's disgusting. This is -- I mean, it takes an oyster from -- this oyster is about 3 months old. For it to get from this size to this size, this is about a 3-year-old oyster. Three years of damage you're looking at there, take the growth from that to that.

I've seen areas 10 years oysters coming back. I mean, this is not something that's going to be done and fixed overnight.


GUPTA: Now, up next, as the clean-up continues, how many workers are getting sick? And what exactly are they experiencing?

I spoke exclusively with the doctor in charge of BP's medical response from the Gulf. You'll want to hear what he has to say. Stay with us.


GUPTA: We are back with SGMD.

These workers go out there to try and clean up the oil on the water. The question is: what is the health impact on them?

Dr. Kevin O'Shea is the head of BP's medical response. We went to him straight to get some real answers. Take a look.


GUPTA: For someone that's been out there and you've heard these complaints -- I'm sure like I have -- they complain of burning in their sinuses and their throat, lightheadedness, nausea, headaches -- what is that? Is that -- is that exposure to these toxic elements? DR. KEVIN O'SHEA, BP'S MEDICAL UNIT: Regarding the symptoms that we're seeing, we don't have a good explanation.

GUPTA: Does it surprise you that there's not a good explanation? Because -- I mean, what a lot of people are saying is that, look, we're smelling this stuff, we don't feel well afterwards. We are exposed to this stuff.

O'SHEA: Right. They do come in and we do evaluate them. And we do treat them, and assure that there hasn't been any ill effect from a chemical out there. Sometimes we can't explain why.

GUPTA: There are gray areas of medicine.

O'SHEA: Oh, absolutely. Yes.

GUPTA: You know that probably better than anybody.

With regard to testing -- if someone comes in with any kind of complaint, are you just getting baseline blood testing? Or are you only doing it in cases where you're strongly suspicious?

O'SHEA: We do not have any sub-protocols out there. So, we rely on the occupational physicians and emergency room physicians to do appropriate evaluation and treatment of the individuals. So, I would know in some cases -- yes, there's blood work being done. In all cases, I can't tell you that.

GUPTA: Yes, like to these patients coming, they have -- they have cold-like symptoms, they got these rashes and other things and they're just told this is all due to a virus. I mean, it just -- that doesn't sound right to me. Does that sound right to you?

O'SHEA: Not being able to evaluate any specific examples. But we have 40,000 responders out there. People will get sick, as well. So I -- we are not influencing the practitioners out there in any way. We are relying on them to use their clinical judgment, understanding what the exposures are and understand what the symptoms are, and give their best diagnosis for the situation.

GUPTA: Because of this, this concern that, you know, you're with BP ...

O'SHEA: Right.

GUPTA: ... a worker may say, look, you've got a dog in that race. If they come to you, a worker, and they're not happy with what you or your doctors have told them, can they go somewhere else?

O'SHEA: Absolutely.

GUPTA: And will it be covered by BP?

O'SHEA: Well, as far as going somewhere else. We know that people have bypassed the EMS personnel that we have and have gone into their -- to see their personal doctors. And we are -- we don't have a problem with that. They just need to go through the claims process and workers compensation process, and that would be handled that way.

So, we know that it's happening. We're not forcing people to see any of the health facilities that we have out in the field.

GUPTA: After Valdez, they said that the 11,000 workers that were studied, some reports say that more than 6,000 of them eventually got ill. Some longer term, some shorter term, some very long term -- developed significant problems. Is that something you've worried about?

O'SHEA: It is. And that's why we engaged the Institute of Medicine and other government agencies, health and human services, NIH, to look at long-term health.

GUPTA: But there aren't any right now to look at, right?

O'SHEA: The long-term health studies, no. I don't believe from any of the oil spills. The Institute of Medicine had a seminar here and there were not any long-term health studies that were out there.

GUPTA: So, you're working in a little bit of a black hole. I mean, you just don't have the precedent to base this on.

O'SHEA: For long-term health studies? No, we do not.


GUPTA: Now, we will, of course, continue to follow this story right here on SGMD.

When we come back, why can't this woman see her shoulder? I was given access to Abbie Dorn. Her story is coming up with us next. That's going to make you think. I promise.

Stay with us.


GUPTA: Does a severely disabled woman have a right to see her children? Or should children be shielded in some way from seeing her mom when she's unable to move or clearly communicate with them? These are questions that are tearing one family apart.

I was given exclusive opportunity to meet that mom. Her name is Abbie Dorn, and this is her story.


GUPTA: Abbie ...

(voice-over): This is Abbie Dorn. She's been like this for four years. Watch her eyes.

(on camera): Can you look at me? Look over here, Abbie. Can you blink yes for me? Blink yes.

(voice-over): Abbie's parents, here with me, say she can communicate, yes and no, by blinking.

Her ex-husband disagrees and says her blinking is simply spontaneous. It is not communicating.

(on camera): Does this hurt at all, Abbie?



GUPTA: You think she's communicating right now?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, yes. That was a yes.

GUPTA (voice-over): Abbie's parents and her ex-husband say it matters whether her blinking is really communication.

But, you know, the story you're about to hear is really more about three children and their mother, and whether they'll ever see each other again.


GUPTA: This is how it began: 8 years ago, Abbie was 26, vibrant, happy. She was marrying Daniel. Their lives filled with nothing but joy and big dreams. They wanted to start a family.

The children didn't come easily. It would take months of fertility treatments for Abbie to get pregnant. Abbie and Daniel got the news. They were having triplets.

Abbie's mom, Susan:

SUSAN COHEN, ABBIE'S MOTHER: They really felt that it was the beginning of a very good stable, happy life.

GUPTA: There were no signs during her pregnancy that things would go terribly wrong.

Abbie's father:

DR. PAUL COHEN, ABBIE'S FATHER: We didn't know anything about this until three hours after it happened.

GUPTA: During delivery, Abbie lost nearly two liters of blood, underwent an emergency hysterectomy and her most vital organ, her brain was starved for oxygen for almost 20 minutes.

Abbie survived, of course, though, her brain was severely damaged. The triplets -- Reuvi, Esti, Yosse -- they were fine.

Today, they're 4 years old. We're not showing you their faces because they are minors. Abbie has not seen them since they were 1.

Her parents say she wants to, that she tells them that with her blinking. Robert McCarthy is a therapist working with Abbie.

(on camera): There had been some articles in some papers from her former husband's attorneys, that have said that she was in a persistent vegetative state. Do you agree with that?


GUPTA: Absolutely not?

MCCARTHY: No. I think that Abbie's clinical condition is more indicative of a brain-injured individual.

GUPTA: But her ex-husband, who would not talk to us, disagrees. He says Abbie could not possibly be communicating and is preventing their three children from visiting her.

Vickie Greene is his attorney.

VICKIE GREENE, DAN DORN'S ATTORNEY: As far as we know, medically speaking, she is in a vegetative state. And to have her children see her at such a young age when they can't fully understand the tragedy and what happened to their mother. He's concerned about how they're going to react. She's not capable of any interaction with the children.

GUPTA: Abbie's parents and their attorney, Lisa Meyer, insist she can interact with them.

LISA HELFEND-MEYER, ABBIE'S ATTORNEY: She has consistently stated that she wants visitation with her children. She does have cognitive functioning as evidenced by the tests that she took that she passed with 80 percent accuracy.

GUPTA: McCarthy showed me.

MCCARTHY: One would expect that Abbie's responses to a series of statements would be 50 percent accurate and 50 percent inaccurate, merely based on chance. She was able to demonstrate an 88 percent level of accuracy.

GUPTA: It's Friday afternoon, a music therapist is working with Abbie. Later, it's acupuncture and acutonics therapies. Her parents are providing Abbie every available therapy. But is it working?

To be fair, I'm a neurosurgeon, and even I'm not sure. I'll ask her about Reuvi, one of her triplets.

(on camera): Abbie, is this Reuvi? That looked like a yes.

(voice-over): But as I spent time examining Abbie, I wondered if debating whether she can express what she wants is even the right question to ask.

Her parents' attorney: HELFEND-MEYER: I think that Abbie's medical condition is the red herring in this case. Children have a right to know their parents. It doesn't matter what their medical condition is.

GUPTA: Vickie Greene, who represents the father, says he doesn't want to prevent the kids from seeing their mother, but it's about timing.

GREENE: He's concerned about how they're going to react and how it's going to effect their development. Dan believes the children will know about their mother when it's age appropriate.


GUPTA: I can tell you, the court has appointed a child development expert to work with Abbie and Dan's kids, to determine if seeing their mother would be traumatic. They've also appointed a neurologist to get an updated official medical evaluation of Abbie's condition.

Coming up, with the oil spill gushing in the Gulf, many are feeling despair, frustration. Many are stressed out. How to cope with the stress is the topic of "Ask the Doctor."

Stay with us.


GUPTA: And we are back with SGMD.

Every week at this time, I'm going to be answering your questions. This is your appointment. No waiting. No insurance necessary.

We'll get to an e-mail question from Tinley Park, Illinois. "Can you address problems of depression and hopelessness from many unemployed workers in the Gulf? What is going done to help these people cope?"

I'll tell you -- just walking around here, you see exactly what you're describing. And we know the economy, jobs, relationships, all of that can cause a lot of stress. And where I am today, jobs are really high on that list of worries.

Mental stress is taking a toll on many people living in this particular region of the country.

About a month ago, I was here interviewing some of the fishermen's wives. They talked to me specifically about their types of feeling of stressed. At the St. Bernard's Project just outside New Orleans, the wait for people who are seeking mental health services is just getting longer and longer. It stretched from three to four weeks to more than seven weeks since this oil disaster began.

Some clinicians are very concerned about the future here. The water, the culture -- aren't just a way to earn a living. They're a way of life. The way families have lived and have done things for generations.

One Louisiana lawmaker wants BP's $20 billion liability to also pay for mental health claims. He says that BP claims process does not cover mental health services as things stand now. And Louisiana's health secretary is also asking BP for $10 million to pay for mental health fund.

For now, I can tell you, from what we've seen, the focus is on the basis, make sure food vouchers are able available, helping people pay their bills.

The clinics at St. Bernard's Project are also teaching other things like wellness classes, trying to relieve stress. From those suffering extra stress due to the current situation, they teach sometimes some basic techniques that seem to help: deep breathing techniques, for example; mindfulness meditation techniques; also mindful eating, knowing how to control yourself when you're anxious and sitting down at the table.

Here in the Gulf, there's also a lot of attention being paid to maintaining relationships within families and communities -- something that we can all benefit from, I think. Hope that helps.


GUPTA: All right. Let's shift topics now.

We're just one week away from the New York City triathlon. You see that I'm training really hard in the Gulf. Six CNN viewers from coast to coast are racing with me. We've been sharing their stories with you from the past six months now.

One of them is Meredith Clark. She's been training in Tallahassee, Florida. We're checking in with her today.

Now, when Meredith signed up for the Fit Nation Challenge, she was just turning 30 and decided it was time to achieve her lifetime goal of competing in a triathlon. She also wanted to show other women in the African-American community that they could get fit as well.

Take a look at how she's doing now.


MERIDITH CLARK, FIT NATION PARTICIPANT: Hello there, and good morning. It's Meredith Clark here with CNN's Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge.

I'm fresh back from a morning's swim of 1,000 yards in preparation for the triathlon. I'm very excited about the Nautica New York City triathlon. I'm looking forward now to jumping in the Hudson, which was a big fear of mine up until I guess a little over a week ago.

But I'm looking forward to seeing the crowds and hearing the people and just feeling the adrenaline pump as we complete this race. This process has been lifestyle change and a transition for me. I am really looking forward to becoming a triathlete to incorporating the workouts into my daily schedule, not just for the purpose of racing but just for the fun, the exercise that I get from doing it.

It's been a lot of fun having you guys along for the journey. I hope to see you there at the finish line on July 18th in the Nautica New York City triathlon.

This is Meredith Clark, signing off.


GUPTA: Well, Meredith, I think you'd agree, it's been a tough but rewarding journey for all of us. I look forward to seeing you at the finish line next week, seeing you in the Hudson River as well.

SGMD continues right after the break.


GUPTA: We are back with SGMD where we've been reporting on this oil spill as you know from the start and over the last several weeks now, really talking a lot about the physical and mental health impact. It's a story that we're committed to and will keep reporting.

Another disaster we've been talking about as well is the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. I'm going back to Haiti next week and I'm going to report on if anything has changed for the survivors of that devastating quake.

Tune in for the next SGMD for much more on that and look for us all week next week as well.

Thanks for watching today. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

More news on CNN starts right now.