Published on 17 July 2022
In July 2017, a woman was taken to the Flinders Medical Centre suffering a serious health condition.
She was extremely concerned about her daughter at home and asked SA Police to conduct a welfare check. When police arrived at the home, they immediately contacted City of Onkaparinga's environmental health team.
The team investigates potential public health issues, working with property owners to improve living conditions, so they don’t impact their health or the health of others.
When Team Leader Community Health, Nicole, and environmental health officer, Craig, entered the house, they realised this was no ordinary squalor case.
"We'd never seen anything like it," said Nicole.
"The windows were covered so no light penetrated through, and they were sealed shut with gap-filler so there was no ventilation. There was an extremely strong ammonia odour from dog and cat faeces, which stung our eyes.
"There was a build-up of a greasy substance on all surfaces, which turned out to be Castile soap, and there was a build-up of black mould in all of the wet areas.
"There was only one entry and exit to the house through the laundry door, with all other doors completely locked and sealed, and all the food in the kitchen was in cans or packets, which were sealed in freezer bags. There was an outdoor wardrobe with clothes, and an outdoor shower and toilet.
"It wasn't the usual squalor we come across because there was no hoarding and very little personal effects or rubbish."
The living situation with the mother and her daughter, Season, came to light soon after. Both Season, then 36 years old, and her mother, believed Season had a potentially deadly sensitivity to everyday chemicals, which they said was diagnosed following a severe medical episode she'd suffered as a 16-year-old.
She'd been living in isolation in the home ever since, following strict decontamination processes and without once stepping foot in the outside world.
In hospital, finally exposed to the outside world and surrounded by chemicals such as cleaning products, perfumes and deodorants that she and her mother believed could kill her, Season’s misdiagnosis began dawning on her.
Back at the house, Nicole and Craig worked to ensure it was no longer a potential health risk.
"To ensure the hospital didn’t release Season or her mother until living conditions improved, we served a Public Health Notice, explaining the work required to make the house 'liveable'," Nicole says.
During one of their hospital visits, Craig recalls Season complimenting the hospital—not often revered for its cuisine—about its food.
"After eating tinned food for so long, eating steamed hospital pumpkin was such a pleasure for her, " Craig recalls.
"It was really nice to see and hear these little stories and bond with her over those."
"We then worked with Season and her social workers to get the house cleaned up,” Nicole says.
“We organised new beds and furniture from the Salvation Army; worked with maintenance teams, organised by the hospital, to remove rubbish; worked with cleaners to thoroughly clean the house; and worked directly with Season to open windows and doors to allow air flow and light to penetrate the house."
A particularly cathartic moment came in the days following Season's release, when Nicole and Craig were discussing how they might remove the gap filler from the window tracks to open them for the first time in 20 years.
"Instead, Season smashed the windows, which I think was quite therapeutic for her," Craig laughs.
Season then began to reacquaint herself with the world outside her bubble.
"Before long she began to experience more of a normal life and took joy and pride In what many might consider mundane and everyday experiences."
"She was learning how to catch a bus, she ate a Whopper for the first time, and she made her own Medicare and dentist appointments," Nicole says.
"At times, she'd call us for advice or help if things became too overwhelming, and Craig and I would help where we could, or guide her to people and organisations that could help.
"She seemed to trust us. I suppose we were friendly faces while she was dealing with all the massive changes in her life."
Months later, Season contacted Nicole again when she wanted to find a new place to live. Nicole wrote to Housing SA to advocate for Season to be provided with emergency accommodation, and soon arranged a meeting to ensure they understood the enormity of the situation. Housing SA agreed to provide Season with a unit to live in, where she still lives today.
In the years since, Season has ticked off many firsts and achievements, including getting her P-plates, buying her first car, travelling interstate, performing live music at gigs, working various jobs and completing a Certificate 4 in Youth Work.
Last Tuesday, she hosted an event in the cosy function room of a south-western suburbs pub to celebrate five years of leaving home, where friends and those who'd supported her along the journey spoke of her resilience and incredible achievements.
During the speeches, it was clear these traits were evident long before she'd re-entered the outside world, with Season having completed an online course to become a qualified counsellor, made a network of good friends across the world through online gaming, and become a master player of the recorder, all while stuck in her bubble.
Nicole and Craig say Season is one of the strongest and most resilient people they’ve ever met.
“We’ve caught up a few times over the years since and it has been really amazing to see how far she’s come, how strong she’s become, and how much of an inspiration she’s been,” Craig says.
“She might’ve learnt a lot from us initially, but we’ve learnt a lot from her too, and the relationship we’ve formed is something we cherish very much.”
Season says Nicole and Craig fought for what was best for her during the turbulent period after she was forced to leave the house.
"When I was told about the council being involved in the house assessment after I'd been removed, I initially felt intruded on," Season says.
"[But] when Nicole and Craig came to visit me in hospital, they showed they actually wanted to help.
“They became my temporary parents when I was suddenly in a world I didn’t know, with mum being in the ICU and dad being absent from my life.
”Nicole campaigned for me to get housing when I was facing homelessness because she believed I deserved the chance to live in a normal household as the new leader of my destiny.
"Another thing I learnt from Nicole is to tape up the windows before you smash them with a hammer!"
Season says she's still processing her journey over the past five years, but she's keen to talk about her life and her passions through social media, music, books, her website and other public forums.
"After COVID, I believe people are ready to see the world from my perspective, understanding what it's like to live with social distancing and sterile environments," she says.
"After all, I was social distancing 22 years before it was cool!
"I want to create fire in bellies, passion for waking up every morning and a boldness to embrace whoever you are. I'm hoping it's an inspiring, challenging and thought-provoking journey."