Cause of Florida woman’s near-fatal food illness a mystery; exposes failures in system

The Palm Beach Post reports this morning that Amber Dycus, 38, of Loxahatchee, Florida, went to the hospital after four days of illness. The doctors told her she was in acute kidney failure, hours from death. She endured six days of intensive care, multiple blood transfusions and, so far, 196 bags of plasma.

There are more treatments to come, and no signs yet that her kidney function is approaching normal. She feels lucky to be alive, but also very afraid – afraid of eating out, afraid of catching germs, afraid of never getting better.

Dycus desperately wants to know what did this to her. Her lawyer, Craig Goldenfarb, thinks the public ought to feel the same way.

A health department inquiry has resulted in the brief closure of a Royal Palm Beach restaurant where Dycus often ate. Inspectors found roaches, improper food temperatures, slime in the freezer and a dishwasher with almost no sanitizer in it. After a thorough cleaning and a tuneup on the dishwasher, the restaurant, Hilary & Sons, has reopened.

But was it really the source of her illness? A series of missed opportunities, miscommunications, delays, and no small measure of scientific uncertainty means there may never be a conclusive answer.

At Palms West last month, Dycus was diagnosed with hemolytic-uremic syndrome. It’s an often fatal condition that happens when toxins cause red blood cells to shear apart and clog capillaries, shutting down the kidneys and leading to a buildup of waste in the blood.

It’s associated with outbreaks of dangerous E.coli O157 food poisoning.

Normally, when E.coli O157 is suspected, the health department is notified immediately, so that a public health investigation can be launched.

Dycus said her doctors told her she must have eaten contaminated beef. She’s grateful to them, and the nurses at Palms West, whom she says saved her life. But one thing they did not do was notify health authorities. A spokeswoman for Palms West said she could not comment.

It wasn’t until Dycus contacted a lawyer, and her lawyer called the media, that a health inquiry began. By then, a month had passed, the foods Dycus had eaten had long since disappeared, and the ability to tell exactly what sickened her had become nearly impossible to discern.

Courtesy Nailsea Court