Brain Health

The Turtle Bowl and the Awful Smell: My Adventures with Phantosmia

by Joyce Hoffman

The Turtle Bowl Smell

The sale of turtles less than 4 inches has been banned in the United States since 1975 because turtles pose a high risk of spreading salmonellosis, especially to children. In 1975, I was a 25-year old woman and already working as a writer. I knew of the ban on small turtles then.

But as a young child in the 1950s, I didn’t know it yet. In the living room of our tiny house, I could smell the stench from our turtle in the appropriately named “turtle bowl” with its faux palm leaves sitting next to our overheated radiator. If my mother didn’t clean the turtle bowl for a week, and a week was all it took, the turtle bowl would stink because of the grossly wilted lettuce that served as food for the turtle that became slimy after a couple of days.

The turtles died one at a time (we had seventeen of them). My mother flushed each of them down the toilet. I remember standing over the toilet and saying our tearful goodbyes as the turtles whooshed away in that vortex.

At the end of my teenage years, we moved to a bigger house, and I forgot about the turtle bowl, as did my mother. We were almost grown then, my brother and I, and a turtle bowl would be an unwelcome annoyance because we would have to clean it, the responsibility that my mother would have passed on to us. 

Jump ahead a little more than forty years. That’s when I had my hemorrhagic stroke. From that time up to now, I can smell that rancid turtle bowl again when it is not present. Why? Could I be having smell hallucinations to add to my never-ending repertoire of post-stroke changes?

Smell and Causes of Phantosmia

Ronald DeVere, M.D., Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), is the director of the Taste and Smell Disorder Clinic in Austin, TX, has been evaluating patients with taste and smell disorders. Dr. DeVere is also the co-author, with Marjorie Calvert, of the AAN’s patient book, Navigating Smell and Taste Disorders.  

In the words of Dr. DeVere, “Olfactory hallucinations are perceived abnormal smells—usually unpleasant—that are not actually present in the physical environment. They can come from a number of different areas of the smell system. If the smell continues for less than a few minutes, the site of origin is likely the smell region of the inner temporal lobe of the brain, called the uncus. The source could be an abnormal electrical discharge or a seizure.”

I was stuck with the turtle bowl. Potential causes, says Dr. DeVere, among others, of this abnormality, aka olfactory hallucination or phantosmia, could be a stroke or an injury following head trauma. Almost all stroke survivors have had head trauma or PTSD. An MRI and a brain-wave test (EEG) are used to evaluate for these causes. There is no cure yet that is FDA-approved.

There are worse things to smell than a turtle bowl, but at the moment, I can’t think of any.

Dysfunction of smell (phantosmia (phantom smells), anosmia (loss of smell), parosmia (dysfunction in smell) can have a significant impact on quality of life.

A loss or dysfunction of smell can have a significant impact on quality of life.

For more information on phantosmia and other smell disorders, click here.

For more information on the neuroscience of smell and aromatherapy, click this YHF link.

About Joyce Hoffman

Joyce Hoffman was working in Philadelphia at Cozen O’Connor, an international law firm. Joyce was formerly a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, an author whose book went into its 4th printing, a part-time college professor until 2007, and a technology and corporate trainer for the last 20 years.

Unfortunately, she had a stroke in the middle of the night in April 2009. Always seeking out the positive in everything she has ever done in her life, Joyce started a blog in August 2010 to give patients and caregivers the confidence to stand up for themselves, despite the indifference and negativity that confronted her daily.

Using only one hand to type since her right, dominant hand was paralyzed from the stroke, she goes through her story, beginning with the signs before she had the stroke and ending with now, when she has come to grips with the stroke.

Joyce is a worthwhile speaker who will make any person both heed the warning signs and, at that same time, come to realize the necessity of accepting a stroke and going on with their life.

Follow Joyce on her blogs at Dear Joyce and Stroketales. Check out her book The Tales of a Stroke Patient as well!

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