How a Grandmother Handled Her Grief and Frustration with Determination to Change Oregon Law on Behalf of Other Families
We are survivors, my tough family, but no family should be in our shoes.
During Labor Day weekend in 2014, news broke about three children in Oregon who’d contracted E. coli O157:H7 during the same period, and in the same area. Multiple causes were investigated, though the source was never conclusively determined. Two of those children survived but one, Serena Profitt, did not.
Serena’s grandmother, Sherri Profitt, is promoting a new bill in the Oregon legislature that would require E. coli testing in certain instances. She’s agreed to tell us her story, and why she doesn’t want to see any other families face the questions, anger, and pain that her family knows.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself, Sherri.
A: My sister and I had a good and happy childhood growing up in Portland, Oregon. We lived the best of both worlds – growing up in the city, but every weekend making the trip to Grandma’s house in the country. I remember my dad making everyone smile with his funny habit of nicknaming everybody he knew, especially family.
At the tender age of 14, I learned about personal and family loss when my dad was shot and killed by another man. I was devastated and never really felt able to get past it. We ended up leaving Portland for a small rental down the road from my grandparents. Since Mom was our sole support, my sister and I spent lots of time with Grandma. At 16 I started keeping books for my grandparent’s road construction company.
It was during my senior year that I met, John, the love of my life – on a blind date that I almost didn’t go on. Thirty-four and half years later he’s still the one! Early on, as we got to know each other, it was John who helped me unravel my knotted feelings about my father’s death and what or who was to blame. After we married we made our home in Gresham in the same house that I’d grown up in.
Because my husband worked in telecommunications construction, his job took him all over the country. We had three kids: Steve, Aleasha, and Maryann (Annie). My grandmother was still close by, and was always ready to teach us how to can jellies and fruit, freeze veggies from our very own garden, and live our lives. She’s the reason I love digging in the dirt! Her wisdom and lessons were down to earth. She always said, “It takes a good woman to make a good man.” I believed her.
Q: Are there other forces, in addition to your wonderful grandmother, that shaped your life?
A: In 1988, my husband, who had grown up fishing in the ocean and had spent a lot of time there, saved 3 people from drowning, but was unable to save a fourth. This experience shook him to the core. A year later his father had a major stroke and for nine years was in a comatose state, before he succumbed to pneumonia. In 1993 John got on with United Telephone in Lincoln City, Oregon and we moved. We were blessed to find 40 acres in the coastal mountains, fifteen miles from town. It was the perfect place for our kids to grow up. Especially because dad was home every night. After all those years of being away he used to joke saying, “Can you live with me?” to which I always replied, “I don’t know. Can YOU live with ME?!”
My bookkeeping days behind me, I started working in a restaurant in town. Eventually, each of my kids (and many of their friends) worked there too. It was a great experience teaching them how to put their heart into their work, as well as for learning how to deal with the public, handle money, and follow the proper procedures for their jobs. Just being with them and watching them grow into themselves, was such a thrill for me. They all did me proud.
Our family was happy. And enjoying all the natural places Oregon had to offer.
In 2005 Aleasha, our middle child, was first down the aisle and in 2006, our oldest, Steve, married Rachel. I was so excited to have a daughter in law I really loved. That same year, Aleasha also gave us our first granddaughter. Following in my father’s footsteps, I decided baby Alexandra would become “Snickerdoodle”.
The next year Rachel and Aleasha announced they were pregnant with girls a month apart. Everyone was so excited. But only two weeks before delivery, Rachel and Steve lost their baby, Moriah, to an umbilical cord around her neck. My daughter in law let nature take its course and delivered her deceased child. It was a sock in the gut to everybody. For me, it was even harder than the loss of my father. I have never been as moved by a person’s strength as I was with my daughter in law. Weeks later, we were all in South Carolina for the arrival of granddaughter number three. Rachel held Aleasha’s hand and coached her through delivery like it was the happiest day ever, yet inside was grieving for her own. I’m not sure I could have been so gracious.
Q: Tell us about Serena.
A: Steve had joined the Air Force Reserves, so he and Rachel moved to Florida for his first two years. I hated losing my neighbors, especially now that Rachel was pregnant with granddaughter number four. Thankfully, they were able to push back their departure and Serena Faith was born in Oregon, October 6, 2009. The joy our family felt was amazing!
Those two years went by quickly, and just like that Squeaky Girl (Serena) was living next door to Nana again! And I loved it. She would come to play, bake with me, or just watch cartoons. Sometimes all three granddaughters came over just so we could have girl time. We started the family tradition of all us girls wearing Nana’s flannel for Christmas. Squeaky Girl was the most excited for that.
In 2012, Rachel and Aleasha were pregnant with girls again, due at the same time. Just like that, I had five granddaughters. I loved having them all together, and dressing them alike. Of the three older girls, Serena lived the closest and spent the most time at my house. She talked like Nana, walked like Nana, and most the time, wore her red sparkly shoes with a twirly dress. If the dress didn’t twirl she wouldn’t wear it.
Serena was very smart, and could sing a song after hearing it once. She was certain that her sister was born just for her. When she spent time with her dad, they enjoyed building things and hunting. Every week, while I was working, Rachel would bring Serena and sister, Hannah, into the restaurant for blueberry pancakes. Serena would ask to be my helper and put her own order in on the computer. There wasn’t anything she didn’t think she could do. She had more faith in God than any child of four I’ve ever seen. At dinner she would reach for my hand, “Come on Nana we need to pray.”
The weekend before Labor Day 2014, Steve’s family met up with Brad (Serena’s friend who also contracted E. coli) and his mom, Elizabeth, at Aleasha’s. They all went swimming, ate watermelon, and fed watermelon to the family goat. The next weekend Elizabeth and Lil Brad came down to Steve and Rachel’s house, along with six other kids. Brad and Serena shared a sandwich that day at a local restaurant.
Serena started showing signs of being sick that weekend, but still helped her dad with wood work. By Wednesday Rachel took her to the local hospital because she’d suffered days from diarrhea, and was starting to have blood in her stool too. When I spoke with Rachel she said they were running tests but thought Serena had a rotavirus infection.
They recommended seeing a pediatrician in two days. But Rachel didn’t wait – Serena was getting worse so she went to the pediatrician a day earlier. Even though Rachel said she didn’t know the last time Serena had peed, the doctor said she looked good. His office called the next day saying the test results were negative.
On Saturday, Rachel called me and said Serena was not good and could I go with her to McMinnville to a larger hospital? I did. From what Rachel told me I guessed that maybe Serena had a kidney infection on top of a rotavirus infection. When the doctors said her kidneys were failing my heart sank. Fear was at the door, but I didn’t want to answer it. E. coli tests, which had been cancelled at the previous hospital, were ordered. Then an ambulance came to take her to the Children’s Hospital in Portland. I told myself, “No!” even as the panic was rising. I reassured myself that now Serena was getting the best care and everything would be alright.
I drove home to get baby Hannah so Steve could meet up with Rachel in Portland. All the way there I tried to be positive, but my mind kept wandering back to when we lost Moriah and I prayed that nothing like that would ever happen to my son again. Yet, here we were praying for our Serena.
After a night of dialysis, she woke up smiling and said,” Good morning daddy and mama,” we thought we were ok. I prayed harder. The family of friends that showed up to support us was unbelievable. The same friends that have been to all our weddings, have gathered in our house, and who gave us a memorial service in honor of Moriah. We clung to each other as we sat and waited, and prayed.
I felt like it wasn’t real, she had to be ok.
Later that night while her exhausted parents napped in a bed beside her she had a stroke while holding her Aunt Aleasha’s hand, a grip my daughter says she will never forget. She had HUS and it was attacking her brain. They tried to remove the pressure off her brain but it wasn’t enough. She was pronounced brain dead.
This was more than devastating, it was unbearable. Nothing is worse than seeing your children feel helpless watching their own child suffer. The pain is enormous, and far worse than losing the first child. Serena was too full of life to just be gone in 10 days!
Suddenly it became news. Two other children being infected with E. coli during the same time frame. Our phones were ringing with people really wanting to talk to us. We escaped to Annie’s (our youngest) home seeking solace from reality a little longer.
The kids were too devastated to even begin to handle this, so as the health department started investigating possible leads, I was planning another memorial service. I had never written an obituary, and now I was writing one for my granddaughter. After 4 days of sharing tears with a friend, we finished it together.
Then I went to our local businesses and told them who I was and that I desperately needed their help. They unquestioningly responded with such humbling generosity. So with fairy wings and wands for decoration, we pulled together pictures and songs fit for a four year old. Whenever anyone at the service asked, “How are you doing?” I told them I was wearing my “big girl panties.”
Just as soon as it was over, the big girl panties hit the wash and I hit a wall of depression. Aleasha and her girls parked their motor home at Steve and Rachel’s to be on hand to take care of them. I was thankful for that, as I could hardly take care of myself. Time kind of stood still as I was spinning in circles. I didn’t go back to work. I didn’t go back to anything. There was a light during this dark grieving time – my Annie gave birth to a beautiful girl! Who will never know her cousin, Serena. My thoughts were outside myself … you look at the wall filled with pictures of your life knowing that this one is her last one; when the other girls come over you can hear her voice in their laughter and then you don’t; you buy Nana flannel for Christmas but no one really wants to wear it because Serena’s not here.
Q: All of what you’ve gone through is heartbreaking. How did you move forward?
A: The day comes when you look at all the news articles again, but instead of sad remembrances or torturous feelings you just get mad. And mad is just what I got when I read that the third child’s mom had to fight to get her child’s E. coli test. “Why?!” “Why did she have to FIGHT for it?” “What if she wouldn’t have gotten it? Would her child be gone like Serena?”
I began a letter to Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. I posted it on my Facebook page and then I sent it to him. My friends’ responses were encouraging. They gave me names of representatives to contact and told me what it takes to pass a bill. Considering there are 60 representatives in the Oregon legislature, I decided that contacting the six or so people my friends recommended was a good start. My friends shared my message on their social media. Then I contacted the reporter who’d made me feel most comfortable after Serena’s death. I waited 10 days before I sent everybody a follow-up email.
You can imagine my apprehension when I got a message on my home phone from State Representative David Gomberg. As I listened to his voice I started to cry. He said he and his staff were picking up my bill and would write it. I really didn’t expect any response, let alone a supportive one. I gathered my composure and returned Mr. Gomberg’s call. “Yes,” he said. They were writing it and would notify me, and send a copy, when it was written. I received a copy just as he said, and the bill is on the committee’s desk to be read, and hopefully receive a hearing date.
So I got to work gathering information on E. coli, brought the other representatives I’d contacted up to date, and asked again for their support. Now my reporter wanted an interview, so I started talking. Basically, what I want and what this bill requests is: a change in Oregon law that requires testing for pathogenic E. coli for patients that are under 18 years of age after having 4 or more consecutive days of unexplained diarrhea. And, that positive test results would be reported to the Oregon Health Authority.
Together with my longtime high school girlfriend that my granddaughters call Grandma Gigi, I am working to see this through. She helped design a logo button featuring Serena’s sparkly red shoes with “Serena Profitt” in white letters. We’re giving them to all our friends and supporters. And I’ve sent them to the review committee members too. There’s plenty to do to get the word out!
I don’t consider myself to be an over-grieving Nana acting on a whim. No family should be in our shoes when a test could prevent it. Appearances can be deceiving, but a test will give you answers. I believe that if Serena had gotten tested the first time we went to a hospital she’d be alive today. If I can spare another family from going through what we went through, and continue to go through, then I’ll have helped my neighbor to the best of my ability. Serena’s Bill (HB 3540) will help some of the most vulnerable among us – our children.
[Editor’s note: There was an information hearing of the House Health Committee on June 3rd, and Sherri was in Salem participating.]
In her spare time Sherri likes spending time with her granddaughters, working in the garden, and sewing. If there’s something going on, you can be sure that Sherri’s not too far away. Sherri appreciates everyone’s support to get this very important bill through the representatives and onto the Senate. If you’re so inclined, she asks that you email Representative Mitch Greenlick (Rep.MitchGreenlick@state.or.us) who is the chairman on the House Health Committee, or any of the other members on the committee.
If you’d like to personally encourage Sherri, she’d love to hear from you! To find out more about Serena’s bill, check out the facebook page here: http://bit.ly/serena-profitt-bill_HB3540-facebook