Many people turned to outdoor spaces with intensified attention over the past year, seeing the little details of backyards to which they are restricted in an unprecedented way. A decade ago Los Altos resident Jean Carmichael designed her Covington Road backyard with banks of raised beds, a birdbath and a birdhouse and broad area for birdseed and it has grown into a daily passion.
The joy-filled hours surrounded by birds in her garden took an unexpected and grievous turn this year when she developed hypersensitive pneumonitis in response to the dust and dander kicked up by her avian entourage. The setting she had created with such love put birds, birdseed, birdfeeder and garden beds in close proximity.
“The birds would flock to this tree, overload it and swoop down on the birdfeeders,” said Carmichael’s husband, Art. “She spoiled them with shelled sunflower seeds; I had to put them in our weekly budget, they were that expensive.”
The local goldfinches, house finches, wrens, sparrows, robins and doves that developed a 20-pound-a-week habit at the Carmichael compound developed a confident sense of homeownership in their backyard sanctuary.
“I loved their songs and their traffic pattern going through the yard,” Carmichael said. “One time we had a quail and she came with her seven kids, walked right over and started pecking on the ground. I was out there with them – my husband very kindly made me five raised beds for my garden, and I’d always be out there, whether it was picking flowers or weeding.”
Art described watching little birds run across her back as she’d bend over weeding, which presages the next step in their garden experience.
“That’s the shadow side of the story – here I think I’m doing something absolutely wonderful and enjoying it, thinking, “This is very heavenly, I’m living close to nature,” Carmichael said ruefully. “I find out that they love to keep their feathers very clean and I was breathing that in. My X- rays showed I had scars all over my lungs, and that’s when I pursued finding out what was wrong with my lungs. To have a pulmonologist say, ‘You have bird fancier’s disease,’ I almost started laughing.”
Subtle start, severe outcome
Art remembers texting their children, laughing about the weirdness of the idea, until one of the kids looked up the condition and said, “Wait, this is serious.”
Carmichael was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis caused by the bird-specific version of hypersensitive pneumonitis. Her body had been experiencing a cascading allergic reaction to the bird dust and dander, leading to hardening of her lungs that would be difficult or impossible to entirely reverse.
“It’s probably cumulative over 10 years. When we built this house 11 years ago, that’s when I did the birdfeeder and the birdhouse,” Carmichael said. “I was getting shorter of breath, (but) I was saying, ‘Jean, you’re 80 years old – of course you’re getting short of breath.’”
The Carmichaels were told to eliminate Carmichael’s contact with the birds immediately, so they emptied the birdfeeders and bath. Proximity matters – she can still thrive in the outdoors, just not with 25 or more avian minions surrounding her as in the past.
“The birds still flock to the trees; for months they were still coming and looking,” Art said. “We can hear the birds in the morning singing to us, but they aren’t flocking to where she is in the garden anymore.”
Living with new challenges
After a course of steroids to halt the course of the disease, Carmichael had to learn to live with 60% of her former lung capacity and to navigate using supplemental oxygen throughout the course of each day. At home, she has a machine with an extremely long line that pumps oxygen to her as she walks the house and garden, learning how to avoid tangles and trips – no trivial matter for an 80-year-old for whom falls are a substantial risk.
“I have to take little breaks all the time, so when I wake up in the morning I have to plan my day – if I’m going to do anything that involves going out, I just have to plan for it because that is what will take the most energy for me,” Carmichael said.
She carries a portable oxygen machine when she goes out, but the difficulty breathing and new logistical requirements make leaving home a tiring proposition that requires a new degree of planning – particularly during a pandemic. In addition to the oxygen cannula that runs behind her ears and over her nose, Carmichael wears a mask and her glasses. The hearing aids have to be jettisoned – no room onboard – and every transition or adjustment knocks some layer loose.
“It’s not been easy. It’s really a roller coaster because you see the things that you can’t do,” Carmichael said, referring to the reduction in the scope of each day’s to-do list. “I’ve had to revise that a lot because I can’t do as much, and it’s very frustrating.
Building to accommodate his wife’s new needs has become a labor of love for Art, who has been drawing up plans to plumb oxygen out to Carmichael’s garden, where she can still be found tending to her tomatoes, dianthus, carnations and dahlias this spring. He has been working on the design with Henry Nesmith at Los Altos Hardware, calculating where to run a pipe through the wall and the valves needed to modify the system.
Last week the dianthus was blooming in a riot of pinks and the blue grape hyacinths loomed as tall as Carmichael’s head as she deftly coiled green plastic oxygen hosing to navigate among garden beds, showing tomatoes beginning to take off as the season warmed up.
She feels safe in the garden – the reaction that caused her hypersensitive pneumonitis doesn’t mean she is at risk from the birds with which she still coexists, at a greater remove.