The death last week of 67-year-old Frances Ruggles served as a reminder that the arsenic poisoning that thrust the small northern Maine community of New Sweden into the national spotlight still lingers among its victims. Ruggles died April 4 after what her obituary stated was a long and courageous battle with the health effects from the 2003 arsenic poisoning.
While the Ruggles family did not want to discuss the health problems that plagued her, two other poisoning victims and a local doctor said those who were poisoned at an after-church coffee continue to suffer from the incident.
On April 27, 2003, 16 parishioners from the Gustaf Adolph Evangelical Church fell critically ill after attending church services and a coffee reception that followed.
Walter Reid Morrill, 78, died the next morning, while Cary Medical Center in Caribou was filled with other residents who were violently ill with vomiting and diarrhea.
The mass poisoning drew media attention from across the country as doctors here struggled to keep the remaining 15 victims alive.
About one week later, Daniel “Danny” Bondeson, 53, of Woodland killed himself and left a note claiming responsibility.
After months of investigation to see if anyone else may have been involved, the state Attorney General’s Office announced that the case was closed and they were convinced that Bondeson had worked alone and that no one else was responsible for the poisoning.
One by one, the parishioners were slowly released from the hospital, many after lingering for weeks on the brink of death and in drug-induced comas.
But the close of the investigation and the release of the sick from the hospital did not end the suffering that continues today.
“It couldn’t be further from the truth that these people [who] got better were released from the hospital and came home OK,” said Dr. Carl Flynn, a Caribou doctor who treated many of the victims at the time and continues to treat them.
Lester Beaupre will turn 60 on May 2, but he often feels much older.
“It’s been six years and I certainly have improved a lot. When I first left the hospital, I could barely walk because I couldn’t feel my feet,” he said.
Beaupre, like many others with arsenic poisoning, suffers from neuropathy, a loss of feeling in his feet.
“For the longest time, like at least two years, I couldn’t walk barefoot on a rug because of the pain,” he said.
Today the neuropathy persists in his feet and he often feels physically unstable. It took him three years to get the feeling back in his lower lip, which felt continuously numb “like I’d had Novocain after a dentist visit.”
“I’m still never sure when I wake up whether my lip is going to be good or whether it’s going to be numb or whether it’s going to hurt,” he said. “It’s been a very long process.”
Lois Anderson is 63.
“The doctor has basically told us that it aged our bodies by about 20 years,” she said.
But what can be attributed to the arsenic and what can be blamed on aging is sketchy, according to Tamas Peredy, medical director at the Northern New England Poison Control Center in Portland.
“Whatever damage was done was done when the poisoning occurred,” he said this week. “The arsenic itself is not still causing them problems, but the damage, the nerve damage or weakened organs can certainly continue to pose health problems.”
Dr. Flynn noted the frustration that he and some of his patients feel because of the lack of research and common symptoms related to arsenic poisoning.
“There’s very little research and it’s obvious why. For one thing it’s pretty rare and for another there seems to be an endless number of ways that it manifests itself,” he said.
Some of his patients have suffered cardiac and breathing problems and nerve damage. Skin cancer is another danger, he said.
“Neuropathy is quite common and can be quite debilitating,” he said.
Anderson has suffered a long list of ailments since the poisoning six years ago, but said it’s hard to determine exactly what can be attributed to the arsenic.
She’s had both knees replaced, which she acknowledges probably would have happened anyway. She has osteoarthritis and finds it difficult to walk without a cane, even though she’s only 63.
She has trouble keeping up her strength and stamina.
“Last summer, five years after the poisoning, was the first time I felt like going outside to work in my garden. It makes me so angry sometimes because you still want to go and do and your body just won’t cooperate,” she said this week.
Anderson also has had gallstones and thyroid cancer since the poisoning, and has severe neuropathy in her feet.
“I would trip all of the time. Finally a doctor did tell me that I should only walk in well-lit rooms or areas and that has helped me some. I’m not saying that some of these things wouldn’t have happened anyway, but it just seems like they all came at once and I think the poisoning aggravated everything,” she said.
A man who answered the phone at the Ruggles’ home this week said he was her son, but that his parents were very private people and his family did not want to talk to the media.