Fear The E. Coli Reaper

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fearecrRita Bernstein of Wilton, CT, was pleased when daughters Chelsea, 7, and Haylee, 3, developed a taste for mesclun salad. Samantha, 10, wasn’t a fan of fancy greens, nor was their father, Larry. But none of them dreamed that such a healthful food would nearly destroy their family.

One night in June 1996, after several meals that had included the salad, Rita and the two girls developed severe cramps and diarrhea. Over the next 48 hours, Rita improved, but her daughters grew sicker. “The diarrhea was uncontrollable; both girls were becoming dehydrated,” Rita recalls. “Haylee was inconsolable.” The frightened parents took the children to a local hospital, where tests revealed infection by the deadly bacteria E. coli O157:H7.

The Bernsteins had read about the hazards of E. coli and pesticides, and were scrupulous about washing fruits and vegetables. So they were stunned when the state health department identified the culprit as the salad purchased from a nearby supermarket. The box of mixed lettuce leaves was clearly labeled “prewashed,” so Rita didn’t rinse them.

After three days of intravenous fluids, Chelsea was released, wan and shaken. But Haylee developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, the most serious condition caused by E. coli. A toxin produced by the bacteria was damaging the blood vessels in certain organs in her body. On July 1, she was rushed to Yale-New Haven Hospital, where her kidneys failed. Over the next 14 weeks the plucky little girl would fight for her life.

Every other day for more than a month, Haylee had to be put on hemodialysis–a grueling procedure to cleanse her blood of waste, since her kidneys couldn’t do the job. For upwards of three hours, she had to lie perfectly still with a catheter inserted in her neck, hooked up to a massive machine. Rita usually stretched out underneath her daughter, cradling her throughout the entire procedure. “Every minute felt like forever,” she says.

Rita and Larry watched helplessly as Haylee battled one life-threatening complication after another. First she developed pneumonia. Then she went into acute respiratory failure-a condition that only about half of all afflicted children survive. She was put on a respirator, and had two tubes inserted into her chest to drain the fluid around her lungs. As a result of intravenous nutrients and other high-dose medications, Haylee’s blood-sugar level skyrocketed, and she had to be put on insulin.

Terrified to leave Haylee’s side, Rita spent every night in the hospital. The nurses put ribbons in the girl’s wispy, chestnut-brown hair. Sometimes, when they were sure Rita and Larry were out of earshot, they cried.

Unable to talk because she was hooked up to the respirator, Haylee nonetheless remained cooperative and quietly determined. “We were just spectators–we did a lot of praying,” recalls Larry, a financial planner who, despite the skyrocketing medical bills (in excess of $500,000, 98 percent of which will be covered by insurance), took a two-month leave from his job to stand by his wife and daughters. Driving home from the hospital one night, Larry began sobbing so hard that he had to pull over. He wondered if Haylee could continue clinging to life–and if the rest of the family could continue clinging to hope.

On August 27, Haylee had a seizure. Doctors discovered massive bleeding in her brain, necessitating five hours of emergency surgery. Again Haylee pulled through, but for the next couple of weeks, she remained frighteningly unresponsive. At a friend’s suggestion, the desperate parents asked a rabbi to affix mezuzahs, special boxes containing prayers, to every door frame of their home. Just as he hammered in the first one, Haylee opened her eyes and called out, “Mommy!”

That was the first step on a long journey of healing-one that continues today. Accompanied by a huge entourage of dolls and stuffed animals, Haylee returned home on October 4, 1996. At first, as a result of the brain surgery, she was blind, had difficulty walking, and had to take a host of medications to regulate her blood-pressure and blood-sugar levels and to prevent seizures. Physical therapy helped her walk again, and within six weeks, Haylee was back in nursery school, her elfin, exuberant personality intact. “People said she looked fine,” recalls Rita. “But as I watched her struggle on the stairs and on the playground, I knew she wasn’t”

Although Haylee has surprised doctors with some improvement–she no longer needs insulin, and her vision is better–Rita is painfully aware that some damage is likely he permanent. Haylee still takes the antiseizure medication, her kidneys aren’t fully functioning, and her eyesight will probably always be impaired.

On April 2, 1997, nine months after the Bernsteins got sick, Connecticut’s Department of Health issued a report confirming an outbreak of 30 cases of E. coli infection from May 29 to June 27, 1996 all of them linked to mesclun salad. The lettuce was traced to Fancy Cutt Farms, Inc., in Hollister, CA (though state health department investigators couldn’t find any E. coli O157:H7 bacteria in recent samples of the grower’s lettuce and water). Twenty-eight people in Illinois and seven in New York also became ill after eating the salad greens.

The Bernsteins sued the supermarket that sold the tainted lettuce. In January 1998, the state of California filed a civil suit against Fancy Cutt Farms. It claims that the company’s unsanitary processing procedures violated food-safety laws. According to Jim Waddell, acting chief of the Food Safety Section of the California Department of Health Services, lettuce was being washed with water from a well adjacent to a cattle-grazing area. The water may have been contaminated by manure–a well-known breeding ground for E. coli bacteria. “We intend to fully cooperate with the attorney general,” says Greg Chilton, the company’s attorney. “But Fancy Cutt denies any wrongdoing.”

In May 1997, at the invitation of the Clinton administration, the Bernsteins were among the approximately ten families who looked on as Vice President Al Gore announced the federal government’s $43.2 million food-safety initiative (which recently ballooned to an estimated $71 million), a program that will focus on disease prevention. As Rita stood in front of the White House that morning, carrying Haylee, she realized just how fortunate she was: At least four of the other families had relatives who died from food poisoning.

Rita continues to marvel at Haylee’s recovery. Last year, she was afraid to look even a day ahead; recently, she registered the lively 4-year-old for kindergarten. “I’m in awe of how well-adjusted Haylee is after all she went through,” she says. “She really wanted to live.”

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