Foodborne Illness:
  People who've fallen victim


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"I was one of over fifty cases reported to the Center for Disease Control with the same strain of E. coli, and in the end, my illness was traced back to the bag of pre-washed lettuce."
  — Haylee

I was only 3 in 1996, when I ate a meal containing pre-washed mesclun lettuce greens, a meal that would change my life forever. Shortly after eating the lettuce I became very ill from E. coli O157:H7 bacteria in one of the first E. coli lettuce outbreaks. Other members of my family also ate the lettuce, but for some reason it affected me most severely. First I developed cramps and diarrhea, then I became increasingly dehydrated. My parents began to worry so they took me to the hospital where I was admitted.

My platelets began to drop rapidly and within a few days I had developed signs of HUS or Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, a very serious complication of E. coli poisoning.

 My condition did not improve and the doctors told my parents that I would need to be transferred to a different hospital. My older sister Chelsea, who was also hospitalized, began to recover quicker than I, and would not come with me.

Although I was far too young to remember, what my parents experienced is etched in their minds forever. When they arrived at the hospital they saw me attached to monitors and tubes. I was lifeless and very pale. Shortly after my arrival my kidneys failed. I grew puffy and waste fluids began to build up inside me. As a result my tiny body had to endure hemodialysis to clean my blood every other day. I had to lie still for 3 hours while my mom held me. I had complication after complication. I eventually developed pneumonia and went into respiratory failure. My blood sugar skyrocketed and I had to be put on insulin. To make my situation even worse, I had a seizure. Doctors saw that I had bleeding in my brain and rushed me into an emergency surgery. Before it was all over I would spend 14 weeks fighting battle after battle for my life. But I pulled through.

With the prayers of my family and friends, and the medical care I received, I was finally able to come home. As it turns out, I was one of over fifty cases reported to the Center for Disease Control with the same strain of E. coli, and in the end, my illness was traced back to the bag of pre-washed lettuce.

Eventually I was discharged and allowed to return home to my family. But my horrific battle didn't end when I left the hospital. For a period of time after my surgery I was blind. So many surgeries had taken their toll on my 3 year old body. I had difficulty walking and I was on numerous medications. To this day I am still being treated for diabetes. My right side is weak, and I have reduced kidney function. I also have continued vision problems. My doctors consider me a living miracle, and my family thinks I'm a fighter. I know that I survived for a reason. Maybe it’s to tell my story, and hopefully its to help bring about a change in the produce industry so no one else has to endure what I did.

Thank you to STOP Foodborne Illness and the individuals shown above and their families for permission to republish their testimonies and photographs.

Copyright © 2011 Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, Waltham, MA.

Last page update: September 11, 2011