Since 1989 Duehring has been confined to a small house in the remote prairie settlement of Long Creek, N.Dak., a prisoner of her own excruciatingly severe case of multiple chemical sensitivity, or MCS. Her only visitors, her husband, mother and father, must shower with detox soap and then don cotton clothes kept in her house. They find an eerily circumscribed realm: windows covered, furniture cased in low-toxicity sealer, the air filtered. "It's my iron lung," she says, half-jokingly.
Twelve years ago, Duehring was exposed to a heavy dose of pesticides used by exterminators in her Seattle apartment. In the months that followed, she began showing extreme sensitivity to much of the world around her. Today, any jolt to her senses—sunlight, sharp noises, a whiff of perfume—can trigger seizures, breathing problems and the risk of kidney failure. She has no television or radio—indeed, she can't even speak, lest the sound of her own voice send her into a convulsion.
"It used to be easy to enjoy life; now it's harder," says Duehring, whom PEOPLE interviewed by fax. But while her physical world has shrunk, Duehring's life has taken on a global reach. She answers some 500 research requests a month, writing articles and legal briefs and researching specific questions on medical and legal issues from doctors, scientists and MCS sufferers in 32 countries, exhibiting "determination to put her personal tragedy at the service of humanity," as her Right Livelihood citation puts it. Accepting the honor—and the $60,000 that came with it—was Duehring's husband of nine years, Jim, 38, who, along with a small paid clerical staff, assists in her work. In order to spend more time with Cindy, Jim, formerly a Lutheran pastor, resigned to become a teacher. He lives in a cabin 500 feet from her home, which houses her fax and other noisy office equipment, and sees her on weekends—he's virtually her only visitor. "I have faith that God will see us through this," he says. (It was he who took the interior pictures for this story.)
Sometimes Jim's detox precautions fall short: Last autumn he unwittingly drove past a ditch that had been sprayed for weeds; when he entered Cindy's house, minute traces of the chemical on his skin caused her to suffer a grand mal seizure. "It's pretty tough to realize that I can literally make my wife sick," he says, wincing.
To be sure, MCS is a strange malady. An estimated 15 percent of Americans may have some form of sensitivity to more than 75,000 chemicals in commercial use. The disorder is not widely understood; indeed, because MCS effects rarely show up on routine medical tests, patient complaints are widely dismissed as psychosomatic. "Ninety-nine percent of doctors know little about it—they send the patient off to see a psychiatrist," says Seattle allergist Dr. Gordon Baker, who has treated thousands of MCS patients.
For the past five years Duehring has been consulting with Dr. Gunnar Heuser, a Thousand Oaks, Calif., specialist in chemical exposure, who nominated her for the Right Livelihood Award. "As her physical boundaries have narrowed, her spirit has taken wing," says Heuser, who used to speak to Duehring by phone, but now communicates with her by fax.
Ironically, Duehring was the picture of health growing up in Bismarck, N.Dak., the younger daughter of building contractor Don Froeschle and his wife, Jan, a homemaker. In high school, she was a juggernaut: valedictorian, tennis star, first chair clarinet, lead in the school play. "She was a cutup," says Noreen Linke, an old friend. "She could have been an actress, a comedian, a singer." But Duehring longed to be a doctor and began pre-med studies at Pacific Lutheran University, in Tacoma, Wash. In 1985, her final year, she found her new apartment infested with fleas—and her life took its ghastly turn.
Duehring says her exterminator assured her that his bug bomb was so safe "a baby could lick it off the floor." Nevertheless she developed mysterious symptoms—fever, nausea, diarrhea and violent seizures. It was months before she was diagnosed with pesticide poisoning. "In hindsight, I think, 'Why didn't we get her out of that apartment?' " says her mother, who visits Duehring several times a year.
Resolving to offer chemically injured patients a low-cost information bank, Duehring started EARN in 1986. "By the time they contact us, most are so ill they are unable to work," she says. "Their careers have been destroyed, their savings wiped out, and their lives as they once knew them ripped apart." She met Jim Duehring in Bismarck that same year, when she could still go outside. "Our senses of humor meshed well," she says. "We became good friends and fell in love." They married in a brief church ceremony in 1988. "My oxygen tank had to be up front with me in case of a bronchial reaction," she recalls. "I hung a basket of silk flowers on it." Shortly thereafter/Jim and her father built her Long Creek home. Duehring's drinking water is filtered, distilled, then boiled. She cooks meals from organic ingredients dropped off—often by her mother—and left to air out in a special entryway.
Even in this hermetic environment, however, Duehring's health has steadily declined. The crudest blow struck last May, when her heightened susceptibility to sound-induced seizures forced her into silence. "It ripped an unbelievable hole in my life," she says. Worst of all was the loss of the telephone, a treasured link to the outside world: "It is like grieving a death."
For now, she takes solace in her weekends with Jim. Unable to laugh or speak aloud, the couple still share one silent, priceless form of human contact. "Our all-time favorite thing to do is cuddle," Cindy says. "When we hold each other, we are content."
MARGARET NELSON in Long Creek