They call themselves "chemies."
Other people and even a lot of doctors call them all sorts of things, including crazy. Perhaps especially crazy.
Portia Purcell is a "chemie."
For reasons nobody knows, her immune system appears to be shot.
The result: She's allergic to practically everything.
When Portia Purcell goes out, she carries a bottle of pure water with her.
That's about all she has left now, that bottle of pure water. She hugs it, her great, brown, melancholy eyes fill her face and she says flatly, "I'll get a tent and go up to the mountains and when the water is gone, well that will be that . . . I can make it day-to-day only because I know I'm dying . . . "
Portia Purcell has had whatever it is she has for most of her life. She's 28 now and has been sick for the better part of 25 years.
She was getting better there for a while, holding down a job at the National Institute of Drug Abuse in the Parklawn Building in Rockville, managing to function, to pull her life together. And then they sprayed the building with insecticide.
And, says Purcell, she got zapped along with the roaches.
With Suzi Elman, it was a little different.
And, at the moment, Suzi Elman's omnifarious allergies are mostly under control. The environment holds dangers for her, yes, but, at least for the moment, not with the deadliness it poses for Purcell.
Daughter of a wealthy Baltimore Jewish family, married to a Montgomery county builder, and now a successful real estate saleswoman herself, Suzi Elman's biggest problem as she grew up was her complexion.
She thinks her problems began with the series of massive antibiotic treatments designed to clear her acne.
She estimates that before she began to get better, she spent about $25,000, saw scores of doctors, and was diagnosed variously as having multiple sclerosis, a bad marriage, a psychosomatic illness, medical depression, nothing, something "all in the mind . . ." She had blood tests and X-rays and CT scans and psychiatric interviews.
Nevertheless, she kept fainting, often in front of clients when she was showing a house.
She used to jog a lot and swim, but she began to react to the chemicals on people's lawns -- insecticides and weedkillers, and to chlorine in the swimming pool.
She is 30 years old, and now she is beginning to hope that she has beaten what was finally diagnosed as "Candida." This is described as a systemic poisoning by toxins from rampaging yeast infestations. These flourish because of a damaged immune system caused in its turn, some believe, by inappropriate stress reactions. There are all kinds of theories.
Diagnosis and treatment by injected extracts of the offending yeast and oral anti-fungal drugs are outside of established medical parameters, in a field called "clinical ecology," still regarded with some scepticism by most physicians.
"Portia," says a worried Elman, "is one sick cookie."
Too sick to work since the spraying episode last spring, Portia Purcell can find no place to live.
She went to California to stay with her parents, but became ill from the synthetics in their house and ended up living in their back yard, where the weedkilling agents got to her. "My parents love me," she says, "this just breaks their hearts." She is tiny and looks almost anorexic. She smiles rarely, but there is a dimple when she does.
She is too weak and too ill to work, but she may not be eligible for full disability or for workman's compensation, both of which she has applied for.
Meanwhile, her job was RIF-ed.
She lives on a welfare payment of $158 a month and $70 in food stamps.
She moved in with Elman and her husband, but the allergies of the women were incompatible -- one needed the windows up, the other down.
At the moment she is staying with a friend, sleeping on a bedspring covered by a pure cotton sheet, all she can tolerate.
Some symptoms suffered by both women at one time or another:
Dizziness, spots before the eyes, depression almost to the point of suicide, blinding headaches, asthma and other breathing difficulties, sleep disorders, immediate reactions to certain foods, mostly carbohydrates, feelings of being drugged, rampant herpes infections, anxiety, panic, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, numbness, even temporary paralysis, feelings of heat, feelings of chill, exhaustion, weakness.
There is a persistent belief in some quarters that some mental patients diagnosed as schizophrenic are, in fact, victims of this disorder. This is another area of highly speculative medicine, but there are stories of astonishing recoveries. So-called "cerebral allergies," this school believes, may appear to be mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or medical depression. Purcell was hospitalized for psychiatric problems for several months after her graduation from high school in Beltsville.
Both Purcell and Elman have been under the care of a clinical ecologist in Birmingham, Ala., Dr. C. Orian Truss, who has specialized in the treatment of the yeast-induced sensitivities. He has published several papers with a number of case reports, but no studies acceptable to mainstream medicine.
They have also been clients of a Somerset counselor who specializes in stress-related disorders. James Cox, once a Methodist minister, says he has worked with about 60 chemies with some success. There are about 30 at this time in the Washington area that Purcell and Elman know of.
Cox uses combinations of yoga, self-hypnosis, relaxation and exercise to help chemies coexist with an environment rife with petrochemicals and their progeny -- not just things like insecticides, but polyester fabrics, paint, carpeting, anything with dyes, auto exhaust, heating gas, anesthetics, plastic furniture, dishes, tableware, walls, floors, beds . . .
Also cheese, bread, cookies, cake, candy, potatoes, milk, pasta, rice, peas . . . although the specific foods vary from person to person.
Tobacco smoke causes instant problems in the victims.
Some experts recommend "avoidance" as the only solution to the problem.
And some victims, those who can afford to, have moved to mountaintops.
But Portia Purcell does not want to move to the mountains. If she does, it will mean she is giving up.
"No one wants to live, no one wants to get better more than I do," she says, "but, it's like, there's only so much a human being can take."