WESTMINSTER — While it looks like something out of a fairy tale, beneath its charming exterior Linda and Don Marcille's Old Ledge Road home contains a mold problem - a problem that they believe has rendered it a toxic trap.
“It's a bad situation,” says Linda, a fine arts painter. “We shouldn't be living in the house.”
Brain fog, stress, trauma, and grief are the hallmarks that mold is leaving on the Marcilles, who have just about exhausted all the avenues they know to find help.
The couple hasn't been sleeping indoors all summer.
Even during the intense heat wave, they essentially lived on their deck in a screened space, sleeping on a blow-up bed.
“We sleep outside, but we are still showering and cooking meals inside,” Linda wrote on Facebook earlier this summer. “Yesterday I went upstairs to shower and afterwards I laid down on my real bed and unexpectedly started to sob. Big, heaving sobs, like a lost child.
“I really miss my bed! I didn't even realize how much I missed it until I laid down on it. It's a special bed made for people with fibromyalgia. It was stupidly expensive but it worked at keeping my fibromyalgia pain at bay for years. I've been in a lot of pain sleeping on the air bed outside.
“I sobbed and sobbed for the loss of my bed, and for all the other letting go to come.”
Recently, Linda, a self-described agoraphobe with an anxiety disorder who is on disability, has moved back inside the house to sleep in a desperate attempt to find solace from the grief she's been experiencing over knowing everything the couple owns will have to be tossed or painstakingly remediated in a long and time-consuming process. Even then, most of the couple's belongings will have to be trashed.
“I'm kind of hiding in the house because I feel safe in the house, but I'm not safe in here,” she says tearfully.
Adding to Linda's mental and emotional stress, she has been diagnosed for a second time with Lyme disease and babesiosis, a co-infection borne by ticks that affects red blood cells.
For the past month she's been trying to get into treatment, but due to her previous brush with Lyme, she has repeatedly become too sick to continue the protocol, which involves heavy doses of antibiotics.
Don Marcille, 77, semi-retired owner of Small Dog Handyman, is so sick he's working very little. Both are coughing constantly and, in addition to mental stress, say they are feeling physically debilitated with little energy.
Even the family dogs are suffering. Posey, one of the couple's three Japanese chins, has been heavily medicated for a cough and allergy symptoms. The veterinarian treating her believes Posey's issues are related to the mold in the house, and the Marcilles had to make the painful decision to re-home their beloved pet to a new home on Cape Cod in hope she will recover.
The Marcilles had planned to live in an recreational vehicle on their property, but it, too, was found to be full of mold. One kind soul offered a space above a garage, but the stairs to it are too much for the couple to manage, given the need to transport groceries, and especially with three dogs that have used a dog door to go outdoors at will into a fenced-in space. The dogs would have to be trained to go to the door and ask to go out, a learning process the Marcilles have been told would require trips up and down the stairs myriad times a day to start.
Now they're hoping to build a shed where they can spend the next year or so living. But Don isn't able to do the work by himself, and all the contractors they've met with have been booked.
The couple fears that without some volunteers to assist Don before winter sets in, they will run out of options.
The silent killer strikes
The Marcilles, who hail from Connecticut, have moved south through Vermont over the past 30 years.
In the late '80s, they moved to the Northeast Kingdom, where they established a homestead with gardens and farm animals and were entirely self-sufficient.
“We joked that we used to pay our property taxes with piglets,” says Linda, noting that everything on their table was produced on their property. She even made her own clothing.
Don worked then at a recycling center, and the couple had a “needs list.” Somehow, the items on it seemed to magically appear when needed.
“We had no money because we were homesteaders, and it was like Christmas every time,” Linda says.
Sometime after they moved to central Vermont, the couple started to become ill, especially Linda, who, despite seeing numerous specialists without a diagnosis, ended up in the intensive care unit and then was sent to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. There, she was finally diagnosed with Lyme Disease.
The couple, by then living in Brattleboro, bought their land at the edge of the Putney town line in 2012 and started building.
They aren't sure when the issue actually started. They say they have felt increasingly sick “for a long time.”
At first they attributed their malaise to lingering Lyme issues, but not long ago they found “a little stain on the ceiling in my studio,” says Linda.
When Don tore the ceiling apart and found mold on the sheetrock, the Marcilles started having the house tested. What they found was a “staggering toxic mold problem, but we didn't know where it was coming from.”
With toxic mold in their bedroom found to be at a stratospheric level and other rooms also testing off the chart, they hired an environmental mold specialist/inspector. When she went through the house, she found the underside of the roof covered in mold.
That's when it was determined that the roofing contractor - who the couple does not wish to name - hadn't put in enough ventilation and had crushed the ridge cap so the crawl space/attic area wasn't venting.
In addition, the roof boots - vents used to waterproof pipe penetrations of a roof - were found to be leaking, letting water through to essentially feed the mold.
They estimate they're looking at needing $125,000 to make the house habitable again.
Linda says that Don, who has worked as a contractor on a small scale, had some concerns during the building's construction and questioned the roofer.
But the roofer “adamantly said my husband didn't know what he was talking about and there was plenty of ventilation up there,” Linda says.
A lawyer has told them that because a decade has elapsed since that work was performed, they have no recourse.
“It was a devastating blow,” says Linda.
The couple does have insurance but to date has received no payout.
“Our insurance company has been fighting us throughout this whole ordeal,” Linda says. “As a matter of fact, for the last few months they've sent out different investigators and have offered to send us $135, which is absurd.”
Recently, the insurance company “sent us a letter that pretty much stated they don't cover anything related to what's going on with our situation but they are sending out another investigator from Boston - I think it's a forensic environmental engineer.”
Linda says that she and Don have a $10,000 cap on their policy for water or mold issues, “but from what they have said so far, it doesn't sound like they're going to pay it.”
A real estate agent has told the couple the house has zero value unless the mold is remediated, the initial phase of which would cost $60,000.
“Our eyes have been open to this world of what everyone is calling 'hidden mold,'” Linda says. “Apparently, it's an epidemic and they recommend yearly mold tests in houses when we change smoke alarm batteries.”
“People are losing their homes and belongings,” she continues. “There's going to have to be some provisions made for people who become homeless but still own a home.”
Linda says the problem is invisible and difficult to detect.
“There's no smell or anything,” she says.“It was completely hidden from us but had become airborne in the house, so each time it rained, it was probably pushing the mold down the pipes into the living space.”
The Marcilles say they have contacted numerous agencies and organizations, trying to find help without success.
They do have a permit to build a shed, but in addition to needing to find the tradespeople who could do so, that plan opens a new set of problems.
“We had been thinking we could live without running water, but we found out that we have to get permits and septic and well systems,” Linda says. “At this point, the hard thing is to get it done in quick time. I'm getting some volunteers but not enough to build the shed building before winter.”
The couple has been living off their savings, but their resources are swiftly running out, and they don't have enough to cover the costs of remediation in the house.
They've set up a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign at bit.ly/680-mold, where they are seeking $75,000 of financial support. Donations as of Sept. 4 total $9,325.
They're also asking for volunteer carpenters and folks to just hold a beam or help carry things to help build the shed so they can live there while they determine a remediation plan for the house.
They could use someone to fix the leaky roof boot, too. “It's small, so it could go up really fast - not even with a ton of help, just a little help,” Don says.
Linda also has hundreds of her paintings for sale and hopes a local gallery might offer to help market them a fundraiser for the couple. For now, her work can be seen online at crowhousestudio.com or on Instagram at @linda.marcille.art.
Asking for help hasn't come easily for the self-sufficient couple. Don says he has often not charged for his work when he has realized a family had little money, and Linda has donated many of her paintings to folks she learned were having a hard time.
And, as someone with agoraphobia - the fear of places or situations of unfamiliar environments with loss of control - and someone who spends most of her time alone in her studio, asking for help is doubly difficult for Linda.
“So many people are really generous and putting you on prayer lists and donating, but there's so much shame as well that you're publicly posting about this,” she says. “It's almost aggressive sometimes how they say things. But it's so healing to also hear people be kind.”
“We've always done our own thing and worked hard and helped other people as well,” Don says. “I know it's taxing on Linda because it's like begging, but I feel this is what we have to do.”
“One of the biggest things people say to us, especially those who have experienced loss by fire where everything was gone overnight, is that they can't imagine how agonizing it is for us to walk around our belongings and know we have to let them go, including my art journals for 40 years,” says Linda.
As the search for help continues, it's taking a continuing toll on both Linda and Don.
Linda's anxiety is at its peak, and both are experiencing brain fog - a condition of lack of clarity, confusion, and forgetfulness.
“It's so taxing,” says Linda, worried for her husband, who says he has counted the number of beams needed for the shed “20 times, and I still don't have it right.”
“Don doesn't look well,” says his wife. “He's wearing the stress on his face and body. And I'm not able to help him that much physically. I'm really, really worried about him getting him through this.”
Still, Don is keeping the focus on one thing: getting the shed building up.
“It's working well for him in his single-mindedness, but I think women tend to worry about the bigger picture, like how would we take a shower?” says Linda, who realizes she has to stop herself from “disasterizing” what-ifs and hone in on next steps, one at a time.
“He calls the little building 'the shelter from the storm,'” Linda says. “I really admire his vision, and it's kind of convincing me that once we get out of here, our bodies will start healing.”
“We will at least have a place to land and time to breathe,” she says.