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The Meaningful Life and Untimely Death of Mold Crusader Melinda Ballard

by Ritchie C. Shoemaker MD

Mourning Melinda On June 3, 2013, Melinda Ballard, age 55, passed away. Anyone involved with the health effects caused by exposure to the interior environment of water-damaged buildings knew who Melinda Ballard was. She saved lives and changed the course of the Nation’s approach to mold and moldy buildings. I did not know she was ill. While she never withheld advice or perspective in the years I was privileged to receive a warm phone reception from her if I called she didn’t share much with me of her private life. I spoke to Melinda Ballard less than four weeks ago. I had some concerns about the direction of publications I was seeing coming from the mold community. There were two papers that alarmed me; I wanted to review my opinions with her as I felt these two papers could cause irreparable harm to litigation that involved mold illness. Melinda was my friend and advisor for years. Without her help, for example, the genomics work that has shown a fingerprint for mold illness would never be done by now. (The genomics data are rock solid and will be published soon.) We have a patent application, an IRB approval and a paper nearly ready to publish. I don’t want to raise expectations, but we may have a revolutionary data set here. I have been working on this for six years: seeing this project through was part of what Melinda had also dreamed about. Never one to mince words-and always with colorful language when Melinda talked, smart people listened. “Whatever you say about somebody else’s work, the issue is science and facts. It isn’t personal. Let ‘em see Joe Friday — just the facts, ma’am,” she said. “But I just can’t believe that kind of crap is published. I can’t chase after every loose cat yowling out there, but let me tell you, there will be no end of trouble if people start being led down this primrose path.” Any way, there was no hint of anything wrong that I could hear in her voice or her firmly stated opinions. She had a lot to say that day that made a lot of sense, as usual. And now, she is gone. I remember calling her in 1999 after her story was portrayed by Arnie Mann for the Sunday (December 3-5th) US Weekend insert. She was suspicious about the unsolicited call, for sure; who the hell was I? I told her but I wasn’t sure I’d convinced her to see a physician in nearby Austin, Texas who was treating mold patients using my cholestyramine protocol. Melinda’s Dripping Springs case, with her then husband Ron Allison and young son Reese rocked the nation with allegations of profound adverse health effects stemming from exposure to a water-damaged building. The case was initially decided with a verdict of $32 million in Ballard/Allison’s favor. That decision swung back and forth over appeals from Farmers Insurance Exchange and eventually was settled for an undisclosed amount. It was this case that brought a little-known physician from New York (Eckardt Johanning) to the national spotlight as a plaintiff’s expert. Dr. Johanning had been working in the field for nearly 10 years by then. He subsequently became the leader of this new aspect of medicine that physicians like me entered, with patient care, research and plaintiff work as a focus. While I’ve not seen that Dr. Johanning ever treated patients aside from removal from exposure, he argued effectively that moldy buildings hurt people. He continues to hold International Conferences dealing with the science of mold illness. This case also started the mold defense industry that led to a near-simultaneous release of anti-mold (and anti-science) ideas in 2002 from the CDC and from an obscure group of Occupational Medical specialists called American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM). It’s my opinion that Melinda started the mold movement. Over the years, her broad influence in the mold world meant that she knew just about everything about everyone. Good or bad: Melinda knew. If you were a plaintiff’s expert, Melinda knew how much money you demanded to appear and what your court record was. If you were involved with mold as an activist or plaintiff, she could tell you what was going on. And now, she is gone, gone, gone. Our world is a smaller place as a result. The point that she made to me repeatedly was that I needed to do good science work to be an effective expert in trial if that was what I wanted to do. And I needed to do good science if I wanted to be able to convince others was that moldy buildings make people sick in a specific manner that can be recognized, as shown by peer-reviewed literature, and treated using protocols that passed IRB review and have been confirmed to be effective, as shown by published double-blinded, placebo-controlled clinical trials. Simply stated: “Do good work,” was her direction. And indeed, as the group of docs at CRBAI slog forward in several fields related to inflammatory illness, Melinda’s allies are people like Jimmy Ryan, PhD, transcriptome researcher extraordinaire and Margaret Maizel, computer guru and Robert Barnes, PhD data analysis expert. “Do good work.” This is the kind of dogged medical science work that made Melinda happy when she saw it, as she told me repeatedly. Melinda had her own trouble with water intrusion in her home on Orange Street in the Historic District in Charleston. In fact, the carriage house on her property was the home of John Rutledge, revered Revolutionary War leader in South Carolina. When expensive repairs and installation of windows and more in the main house went awry, any damage correction to the main house had to be done in keeping with the covenants of the Historic District. Twenty-dollar repair jobs needed authentic materials that could cost $500, for example. During the time she was developing her own case for damages regarding the work done on her home, Melinda had referred Ben Allen to me. She took an aggressive interest in his case and as usual tried to help those who needed it. Shortly after he moved into a moldy home near Charleston, he had developed a multisystem, multisymptom illness and then he developed multiple sclerosis. Ben saw the best docs on the East Coast including those at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), Duke and Hopkins, but nothing worked. At least the MS lesions didn’t progress (hint, hint; clue, clue). Ben responded to my treatment protocols, to the point that he quickly left his wheelchair behind, then his cane. He began to walk and play basketball. CSM doesn’t fix true MS. Needless to say, the defense filed a motion to exclude my testimony (the challenge to admissibility of an expert’s opinion is variously called Frye and Daubert. In South Carolina the case for which State judicial opinion rests is called “Council”) that the judge rejected. Turns out the judge said nice things about the process of science our group has used. Not long after, the jury came in with a verdict for Ben. Melinda was elated with the win. Thanks to her encouragement, I soon had documented 15 “MS” patients improved by first showing the inflammatory basis of their illness and then fixing those abnormalities that both MS and mold exposure can cause. Follow the data, follow the science. Without data collection, there could be no hope of uncovering the pathophysiology of the illness. Melinda simply said, “Fascinating.” She agreed that docs needed to collect the data, follow and apply the science, and document the results and adverse effects, too. Confirm that a therapy actually does something. If a given intervention works, then show before and after. One of her great quotes was, “Don’t just expect someone to believe claims like ‘Drinking lye fixes heartburn.’” Melinda encouraged me to push after the MS diagnosis with genomic samples that will be run soon, but now she’s gone. I met Melinda’s son Reese before he went to Malaysia more than a year ago as part of Melinda’s litigation about her own home. He’s a strapping young man who I am sure will be a difference-maker. My involvement and the details of Melinda’s case are all public record. I’m left to wonder this morning about life and death. I didn’t die and she did. Her legacy is so wide and yet she was so private. Who knew her pain? Who knew her passion for helping others? I saw and felt her passions for helping others. Her no-holds barred conversation demanded that all in earshot had to be on top of their game. And now she’s long gone. Do I miss her? Don’t we all? I kidded her about the fabric schemes in her living room. “The defense will surely claim that the clashing of florals, stripes and plaids was making visitors to her home feel ill.” She was right on top of the comment. “They can go ahead; I’ll just show they don’t know beans about interior design.” I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to Melinda, so these few pages will have to do. It seems odd to call this tiny lady, talled up with high heels and hair piled on top of her head as she was when I saw her, a Giant, but that she was. How do we replace Giants? Maybe by taking a piece of ourselves that we haven’t shared, and giving it freely to a group. Give of ourselves freely, as Melinda did for the benefit of so many. Who knows, maybe another Melinda will come forward to take her place. I’d love to see that happen but until then, we are establishing a Melinda Ballard Scholarship fund. Details will follow, but the fact is, Melinda has no clone. And yes, I miss knowing she is there to ask questions, to argue with, to laugh with and to talk strategy with. We will just have to keep her in our hearts, that’s all. Let’s get to work. Ritchie C. Shoemaker MD

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