For Thanksgiving, I got campylobacter; food safety isn’t simple, neither are stool samples

It’s been a poopy couple of weeks. Literally. Turns out that I’ve been dealing with a Campylobacter infection for a while which has knocked me on my ass. Here’s the story.

Two weeks ago I was preparing to head to Manhattan (Kansas) to hang out with Doug, chat about a few projects, give a talk and take in the K State/Mizzou football game (with tailgating). The trip happened, but I gave a somewhat incoherent talk while sweating, slept most of my visit away, left the football game at halftime and spent two of the nights rushing to the bathroom every hour to evacuate my intestines (which sounded a bit like I was pouring a glass of water directly into the toilet). I wanted to blame Doug. He brings out the best in people.

As we walked to the game I remember saying to Doug that I wished the illness was a hangover because I knew there would be a defined end to it. It wasn’t. I didn’t eat much beyond Cheerios, yogurt and Gatorade for about a week. It was pretty nasty, probably the worst I can remember feeling.
After a feverish trip home and crashing for the remainder of the weekend I made an appointment to see the doctor to get things checked out. At this point I was a bit scared, tired of spending a couple of hours a day on the toilet and had a tender tush. I was also washing my hands like a mad man. With a one-year-old around I was super paranoid about negligently passing anything on to him. Of course, one of his favorite things to do is to stick his hands in the toilet, which is a bit like licking a raw turkey.

At the doctor, I described my symptoms, had a rectal exam (fun) and was given the materials needed for a stool sample. I’m not going to lie; I was a bit excited by the stool sample stuff. I was looking for anything to cheer myself up and I kept thinking about the ironic blog post at the end of the ordeal. Or as my friend Steve said “Wow – [Campylobacter] sucks. Although once you’re healthy again, it automatically becomes funny.” Yes it does.

The idea of stool sample harvesting was way more fun than the actual act. It’s amazing any foodborne illnesses are confirmed with stool samples because the process is a bit nuts.  It took some thinking to figure out how to catch the sample without contaminating it with water or urine. The final decision was to use the bucket from our salad spinner – which has now been retired – and place it in the toilet bowl. I then proceeded to do what I had been doing eight or nine times a day and produced a sample. I had three vials to fill (one for C. difficile, one for parasites and another for other pathogens), and a bonus margarine-like tub for “other things.” The vials were easy, they came with their own spoons. After ten swipes across the base of the former salad spinner I was able to messily get the rest of the sample collected in the tub. Then came the clean-up.  This whole episode took me about 45 minutes and made me think I was on Dirty Jobs.

I proudly returned to the doctor’s office with samples in hand and then waited a few days. On Monday I received a call from the physician’s assistant explaining that I’m now the owner of a culture-confirmed Campylobacter infection. The doctor prescribed some ciprofloxacin and I’m feeling much better than I was 13 days ago.

My stool is beginning to resemble what it did before this whole ordeal, but I’m not totally done. Although rare, I could still develop arthritis problems or Guillain-Barr syndrome (an immune system issue that can lead to paralysis) but I hope not.

I’ve been telling folks over the past couple of days about the campylobacterosis and the responses can be grouped into two categories: “that’s ironic;” and, “where do you think you got it?” The second question is more interesting and easier to answer: I’m not sure.

The Campylobacter could have come from lots of sources. It might have been something Dani or I did at home.  We try to avoid cross-contamination and I’m religious about using a food thermometer, but those practices reduce, not eliminate, risks. I eat out a few times a week and put my trust in the front-line staff at restaurants to do what they can to keep me from getting sick. I also eat a lot of fresh produce that could be contaminated with fecal matter pretty much anywhere from farm-to-fork. Who knows? 

Being a food safety nerd I’m still waiting on follow-up information on the typing and whether I’m part of a larger cluster of illnesses.  If I am, maybe that will help answer the source question. To be continued.

What this incident has shown me, better than I understood before, is that foodborne illness really isn’t as simple as some make it out to be. I like to think that I have some basic knowledge about what I can do to avoid it.  But I still spent 13 days on the toilet and I don’t really know what led to the fun.


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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.