A 20-year battle sparked by E. coli; after fighting for life, she died on own terms

Alisha Lewis died in June 2010.

The 22-year-old spent her final week on Earth paying a matter-of-fact visit to a funeral home to pick out a casket, choosing the white lilies that would rest atop it, and setting aside the hoodie and sweatpants she’d wear as mourners said their last goodbyes.

It was abject fear that coursed through her mother’s veins in early June 1990 when she raced to the Alberta Children’s Hospital, her sick twin toddlers crying in their baby seats. The week before, she had stopped at a fast-food drive-thru and picked up fries and a cheeseburger, which she split in two and handed to her daughters in response to their pleading.

Valerie Fortney of the Calgary Herald (that’s in Canada) writes this morning that after being diagnosed with what was then called "hamburger disease" — referred to today as E. coli infection– Alisha and Aimee Lewis became little celebrities in the city.

The Herald ran stories and photos of their plight, and they were featured on several TV news broadcasts, mainly because the girls were said to have possibly contracted the disease from the fast-food establishment, although the Calgary medical examiner at that time expressed concern that the contamination might have occurred outside of the disease’s normal incubation period.

Quickly, though, they slipped from the public eye. But the struggle had only just begun.

While Aimee quickly recovered, Alisha continued to suffer, and later went into complete renal, or kidney, failure.

When she was finally released from hospital six agonizing weeks later, her mother, Amanda Lewis, was told she’d suffered permanent kidney damage and might need a kidney transplant. "They first told me both of them might not make it," recalls Lewis, who not long after the crisis married her partner, Roger McLaren, who with their mom raised her two girls and boys, along with his two boys from a previous relationship.

Alisha later developed diabetic and autonomic neuropathy — a nerve disorder that can cause intense pain — and also had to have a feeding tube installed to keep nutrients in her body after being diagnosed with gastroparesis, a condition that affects the ability of the stomach to empty its contents.

Knowing all of her young life that she wasn’t likely to live to see age 25, Alisha made the difficult decision at the end of 2009 to end treatment. "She was sick of hospitals," says Lewis, "and she was sick and tired of always being sick and tired." Alisha gave up the painful tube feed, and began eating food again, although she often wasn’t strong enough to keep it in.

On June 8, 2010 — almost 20 years to the exact day of her contracting E. coli– Alisha died surrounded by her family, and cradled in the arms of her younger, by 12 minutes, twin sister. Thanks to accelerated osteoporosis and other life-threatening ailments, she was, says her mother, a young woman with the body of an 80-year-old.

Chickens banned in Calgary; food safety risk?

Chicken banned in the city sounds like the title of yet another bad Loverboy song (Canada has so much to apologize for in terms of bad music inflicted upon the world, see below; this song by Calgary’s Loverboy came on the radio while driving back from Nebraska and Phebus said he liked it; there’s no accounting for taste).

But that’s exactly what cow-town Calgary has done, and two local food activists who collect eggs from their pets responded Wednesday by vowing make it a human-rights issue in court.

A council committee voted 5-2 against allowing residential chicken coops, with members expressing concerns about everything from chicken-feline conflicts to livestock-borne disease.

Urban-hen advocates, picking up on a trend that’s spread throughout B.C. and gaining momentum elsewhere in Canada, have touted backyard egg-layers as a way to ensure food safety and nutrition.

Ald. John Mar rejected that notion, saying he’s fine buying quality fresh eggs — including free-range ones — at the supermarket.

Paul Hughes, longtime frontman for Calgary’s urban-chicken movement, said

"I don’t have salmonella. I don’t have avian flu. My eight-year-old handles these chickens every day of his life. You get chickenpox, but that doesn’t come from chickens."

Maybe. But I’m sure glad Hughes isn’t the medical officer of health for the entire city.

Ring Pop found with metal

I don’t know what a Ring Pop is but the candy (right) probably shouldn’t contain metal.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is investigating after a Calgary boy found pieces of metal in two Ring Pops bought at an Ogden corner store.

Dean Anderson and his son Sloan, 11, stopped at the Bella Food Store on Ogden Rd. on Sunday to buy a Ring Pop candy.

“He took a lick on it and immediately flinched and said ‘ouch.’ We examined it and picked out a little piece of metal. It scratched his tongue.”

So he let his son go back to the store to get a second Ring Pop and when he opened it, found another piece of metal.

“It was jagged in shape, not like a pin.”

A spokeswoman for the CFIA confirmed Wednesday night the agency is looking into the matter.

Oakridge Calgary Co-op victim of product tampering

Here I was saying Calgary was a decent place the other day and someone decides to go and put needles or metal in bread or something.

Calgary Co-op Oakridge Centre on Southland Drive and 24th Street SW, Calgary, was the victim of a product tampering incident. As a result, Calgary Co-op has contacted the police and initiated a criminal investigation, and has notified the appropriate health authorities and is working closely with those authorities on the situation. Calgary Co-op has temporarily closed its Oakridge Centre as a precautionary measure and is conducting a complete inspection of its premises.
Further, Calgary Co-op is initiating a voluntary recall of its bulk bakery products, bulk food items and packaged cheeses, which may contain small metal objects. To the best of Calgary Co-op’s knowledge, these are the only products tampered with and Calgary Co-op will let the public know as soon as possible if it discovers any other concerns. Customers who may have purchased any of these items since Friday, January 15 at the Oakridge Centre are asked to return them to the Oakridge Calgary Co-op on Southland Drive and 24th Street SW for a full refund.


Restaurant inspection in Calgary starting to work

The Calgary Herald reports that the number of complaints lodged by customers against food establishments in the Calgary region has jumped by almost six per cent in three years.

Figures also show a nearly 40 per cent increase in the number of restaurants, bars and grocery stores closed for food violations — ranging from thawing meat to mouse droppings in the kitchen — during the same period.

Last year, health inspectors temporarily closed 93 food outlets until they fixed the problems, according to statistics compiled by Alberta Health Services.

Rob Bradbury, director of environmental health for the Calgary region of Alberta Health Services, was quoted as saying,

“The numbers are huge. Our mandate is to protect public health. It’s a combination of our vigilance during routine inspections and input we receive from the public as a result of complaints.”

I picked up on that last theme during an interview with AM 660 radio in Calgary this morning, stating,

“The technology is out there – the blackberry I’m using to talk with you can take pictures and video. Just go on youtube and see the videos consumers have taken of yucky restaurant conditions.”

E. coli sickens seven in Canada

Any cases of E. coli O157:H7 are "heart-wrenching.”

That’s what Tanya Maksymic, whose daughter Julia became seriously sick with E. coli in 2007, told the Calgary Herald after hearing that public health types are investigating a cluster of five cases in Calgary, which appear related to additional cases in Edmonton and Saskatchewan.

Dr. Richard Musto, Calgary medical officer of health for Alberta Health Services, said,

"We think we see some patterns here. It’s still early, but it looks like there is some . . . connection between these cases."

Two of the people required hospitalization, according to sources, who added the Calgary cases appear linked to three unnamed Vietnamese restaurants. …

In the latest cases, the seven people fell ill between Nov. 26 and Jan. 2.

Maksymic went on to add,

"I never let my guard down, I’m always taking extra precautions. You don’t live normally after that (experience)."

Handling dog treats made teen seriously ill

The Calgary Herald put a human face to the dog treat recall in Canada Saturday.

On Thursday, March 13, 2008, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Rollover Premium Pet Food Ltd. warned consumers not to purchase or use certain Roll Over Pork Tenders Premium Dog Treat described below because it may be contaminated with the bacteria responsible for salmonellosis in humans. … There has been one illness reported associated with this product.

The Herald reported on March 15, 2008, that 13-year-old Brandon Jacklin will never handle a dog treat the same way after contracting salmonella from contaminated pork treats and losing 15 pounds during his medical ordeal that initially baffled health officials and frightened his family.

The story says it was only after an official with the Calgary Health Region recalled a similar contamination problem nine years earlier involving dog treats — from the same company, Rollover Premium Pet Food  — did the family start to get answers.

Jacklin’s mom said,

"I had no idea that normal dog treats you take out of a bag could make someone so sick," adding the health inspector was very diligent in tracking down the source of the illness. Now the Jacklin family is extra vigilant after dealing with dog treats, ensuring they sanitize their hands afterwards.

The Calgary Health Region would not comment on the case, until they receive more information from the health official who investigated.

So the officer who cracked the case, informed the family and triggered a national recall, didn’t supply enough information to his or her bosses in Calgary?

Not the first time the Calgary Health Region — not the individual inspectors — has been, uh, slow.

Calgary, what is the problem?

It only took some bright journalist three days from the initial announcement to figure out that the four sick people with Shigella from baby carrots were in Calgary.

Hypothetical risks are a big story in Canada. People actually barfing isn’t.

The Calgary Health Region, continuing its Paleolithic-era communications style of blaming consumers, was cited by CBC News as "warning people to wash their hands thoroughly to prevent spread of the bacteria."

So, these four sick people all opened bags of baby carrots from Costco and managed to sicken themselves with the same bacterium cause they didn’t wash their hands? It’s a ready-to-eat-food. Who comes up with this stuff?

It’s more than barbeques

Food safety is not simple.

Yet the food safety folks in Calgary, Alberta, continue to insist that there are generally more E. coli cases in the summer because more people barbeque hamburger. That’s blaming consumers, a standard tactic, especially in Canada.

Since the beginning of June, 58 people have become sick with E. coli O157:H7 in the Calgary area. Now they’ve apparently decided to call in the feds for help.

Tanya Maksymic, whose two children were sickened, including the hospitalization of her 17-month-old, said the health region’s decision to get help from the federal government about the unusually high number of cases this summer is too little too late.

I chimed in on Aug. 2/07, with the following letter in the Calgary Herald:

Re: "E. coli infections stymie officials," July 28.

Dr. Judy MacDonald said 28 people have tested positive for E. coli in Calgary, more than five times the number the city usually sees in a typical month.

Despite not knowing the food source, MacDonald stated, "There are simple ways to prevent this — wash your hands before you prepare food or eat food, after you change a child’s diaper, or after you’ve been to the bathroom."

What’s so simple about the recent outbreaks in produce, pet food and peanut butter? Once the products were home, there was nothing individuals could have done to prevent the illnesses and deaths.

Are consumers really expected to cook all their fresh tomatoes and leafy greens to 165F to kill salmonella? Fry up peanut butter? Bake the cat food?

Food safety is complex, constant and requires commitment. Consumers have a role to play, but not if the E. coli is linked to produce like lettuce or spinach.

Everyone in the farm-to-fork food safety system has a responsibility to reduce risk. The opportunities for cross-contamination are numerous, and it’s not that easy to cook a safe burger.

Every grower, packer, distributor, retailer and restaurant must work on developing their own culture that values and promotes microbiologically safe food.

Douglas Powell,
Manhattan, Kan.
Douglas Powell is scientific director of the International Food Safety Network at Kansas State University.