Joe

Stories

I was so dehydrated and cotton-mouthed that I could barely speak. I begged for ice chips ...

I am eager to share my story, despite how embarrassing and, at times, embarrassingly graphic it might be. In part, because I’m actually very glad to still be around.

I’m young enough that I can still look back on my college experience like it was yesterday, which it pretty much was. I remember those days fondly – easy schedules, a fair amount of napping, lots of friends to hang with, and plenty of options for finding if not trouble, then at least some revelry. I was definitely more carefree in those days. Many of my easy, carefree days involved food in one form or another – eating what I wanted, when I wanted, and never giving it a second thought.

Part of my enjoyment of those memories comes from the fact that I am no longer that carefree guy. To be honest, I’ve lost my carefree attitude about food, all because of a pretty serious bout of food poisoning. It was a sickness I never really considered before I contracted it, and it is something I won’t forget for the rest of my life. Though it happened over three years ago, the consequences remain today. Its effects still show in my financial outlook, my credit score, and my very real fear of some food, and some food establishments.

I hope that by talking about my experience with foodborne illness, I can prevent it from happening to others, or, at the very least, help others to think about the problem and how they are – or aren’t – protecting themselves from it.

I am 28 years old and I am a reporter.  Chicago is where I grew up and it has always been home.

I live in Bridgeport which, you may already know, is the Southside neighborhood where the White Sox play. In 2015, I lived with some friends in an apartment on 28th street. I was young, and busy, and cooking was never really my thing. In fact, I just really had no interest in it. But I still got hungry, so …. I would get a lot of take out, which is bad for a lot of reasons, but especially for the reason I’m about to explain.

It was a Saturday in late June 2015, when I was hanging out at home with Scout, my dog. My girlfriend was out of town, and my housemates were busy or working, so I was left to entertain myself. Scout and I decided to drive to the Northside and go hang out at the Dog Beach which, as you can imagine, is a pretty cool place to hang out. We were there for an hour or so, and then we headed home while I decided to order take out on the way. I wanted food from my local favorite taco spot, which was just a few blocks from my house. It’s a little different from what you find at more authentic taquerias. This place grills their meats and even their veggies on a wood-fired grill, for what some might call a “hipster taco”. It is owned by a well-established and trusted family whose first restaurant is famous in Chicago for Italian food, especially the breaded steak sandwich.

To say I really, really liked this place would probably be an understatement. It was one of the places I frequented often, and it was a place I liked to go with other people. I ended up getting two fish tacos, guacamole and an order of their fantastic homemade chips – half corn and half very flaky, very delicious flour tortilla. And, of course, the complementary salsa. I drove home, ate everything, and proceeded with my evening. Nothing unusual about that night.

That was Saturday.

On Tuesday, I was hard at work, sitting in a pew in a court room, and covering an eviction hearing for a beloved rock club in Wicker Park. My stomach turned. But it wasn’t the usual stomach churning feeling, where you feel a sloshing discomfort in your gut. You know, the kind where you feel like you’re about to lose your lunch? This hit me lower in the digestive track. My intestines felt EXTREME discomfort, in fact, I was suddenly in a lot of pain and feeling confused. I didn’t really trust my body to behave, but I stuck it out at the court hearing anyway, and then hurried home before writing my story – something I rarely did. I wrote a quick update on the court case and then took the rest the day off.

I had what would soon be the last good sleep I would get for a while. It was Tuesday night, and the intense pain was arriving by the truckload. My intestinal pain was completely debilitating. My intestines got tighter and tighter. I likened it to what having a boa constrictor wrapped around your insides would feel like. I could feel the pain travel up and down my entire body. I wasn’t really sleeping – the pain would jar me awake all night long.

Then, the most serious case of diarrhea I’ve ever had, or ever hope to have, began. It got so bad, and I felt so weak, that I couldn’t leave the bathroom. I just lay on the floor, pulling towels from the rack and using one as a pillow and one as a blanket as I writhed on the floor in total agony. At the time, I was really glad this happened in the middle of the night, when both my roommates were asleep.

I began to get seriously worried about my health, as I was losing a lot of fluids. And blood. My first thought was I had some sort of parasite in my intestine. Then, I got even sicker. When morning finally arrived, I called my girlfriend, Ariel, and told her I was very ill and needed someone here with me. (In retelling the story, Ariel has said that that was when she knew something was very wrong – because I am not the kind of guy to ask for help.) Wednesday came and went, and as I tried to make it through another night, the pain was getting worse. Finally, I asked Ariel to drive me to the hospital. Three days had passed since I’d eaten the tacos, guacamole, chips and salsa.

I arrived in the Emergency Room in a bad state. Luckily though, it was 5 in the morning so the overnight overdoses and other mayhem were already checked in, but the day’s patients had yet to arrive. I got a bed pretty quickly, and began telling the staff about my symptoms of extreme abdominal pain, extreme diarrhea, and extreme dehydration. They put me on fluids and started running tests: What had I eaten? Had I traveled anywhere exotic?  They even tested for a brain eating amoeba because of a couple of cases that had recently happened in Chicago.

Eventually, after about six hours, they said I just had a virus.

I was released to go home and have a night that was just as bad as the night before. At 6 a.m. the following morning, I called my mom and asked her to drive me back to the ER. This time, I was visibly in much more pain. My grimaces and contortions were worrisome to my loved ones because they could seriously see the pain I was in. I could swear I saw my intestines convulsing through my stomach. I was so dehydrated and cotton-mouthed that I could barely speak. I begged for ice chips, but because they didn’t know yet what was wrong, the nurses would not give me anything to drink. Then I started begging my girlfriend to bring me some water, which finally worked.

The day passed and I was still in the hospital without a diagnosis. Ariel, thankfully, was still by my side and scrolling through Twitter when she found a Chicago Tribune story about a possible food poisoning outbreak at my favorite taco joint. “Have you eaten there recently?” she asked. She immediately told the doctors who said, “Ah, Yes! That makes sense.” They had a few other cases arrive because of the restaurant’s proximity to the hospital. Well, yeah! How could they not think to test for that, then?! (SMH) They wanted a stool sample … but I’d been sick for days, and hadn’t had anything to eat for days, and there was virtually nothing left in my system to pass.

About 36 hours after I entered the hospital they were finally able to determine that I had E. coli O157.

I was so angry in that moment, and I’m still burning mad now! My family was furious. I lost a whole day in the ER and had to return the next day to do it all over again. That lost day would end up costing me thousands of dollars. Regrettably, the lesson I learned from this, is that if a hospital has a certain, well-known reputation, then one should believe that reputation and try to avoid that hospital – even if, in your most dire hour, it is the most convenient option.

E. coli poisoning is one of the most common foodborne illnesses we see in this country. Many strains of E. coli are harmless, but not all of them. It is an illness that wreaks havoc on your intestines causing convulsive pain, explosive diarrhea, and sometimes vomiting. Younger victims are more susceptible to developing very serious complications, some of which can lead to kidney failure and death, even. Adults can experience such ongoing consequences such as pancreatitis, high blood pressure, or even diabetes. Historically, E. coli has been spread through infected meat, particularly beef. The pathogen lives in the intestines of healthy cattle, and survives the mixing, freezing, shipping, and sometimes cooking, of beef.

In fact, the term “E. coli” wasn’t even in the public consciousness until 1993, when the first big outbreak occurred on the West Coast and Northwest region of the United States coming from contaminated beef burgers that were undercooked, and served at a fast food chain restaurant. More than seven hundred thirty people were infected, four of whom died, and one hundred seventy-eight were left with permanent injury including kidney failure, and brain damage. Most of the outbreak’s victims were under 10 years-of-age.

It was this case, in 1993, that made my lawyer, Bill Marler, the go-to attorney in such matters, and turned him into a TV talking head when other outbreaks occur. This event also led to the founding of the nonprofit known as Stop Foodborne Illness. Beef is often thought of as the culprit in E. coli outbreaks, though in recent years, produce has been the source of many outbreaks. In 2018, it was pre-packaged lettuce and salad mixes that sickened 84 people in over 19 states.

In the case of my “favorite taco place,” the Chicago Department of Public Health identified two main reasons for the outbreak: tainted cilantro and unsanitary working conditions. It’s gross … for one person to infect another person with E. coli, they have to spread their fecal matter by not washing their hands, or some other way. The health department did not rule out the possibility of that happening in this case.

So, I learned I had E. coli, and was transferred to the infectious disease wing of the hospital. One of the worst things about E. coli – aside from the fact that it can give you permanent brain damage — is that there is no drug that can get rid of it. You just have to let it pass through your system. Morphine helped me a lot. That was my first time getting such a powerful pain reliever, and it definitely did the job. Since I was feeling a lot better, I only stayed over one night, and was released the next afternoon. I spent about 2 full days in the hospital because of my illness, getting out on July 3, which meant that I’d missed a vacation in Ohio, and was in bed for the Fourth of July holiday. Soon enough, however, those became the least of my worries.

By now the E. coli outbreak was fairly big news in Chicago. Sixty or so people were sickened and many of them were hospitalized. The restaurant was shuttered while the city investigated. I’d heard about a class-action lawsuit that was being considered and I called the attorney quoted in the local paper. He told me I had a good case, and to stop paying the hospital bills – which were coming in fast and furious. But by this point, I thought it was too late. My head was spinning — there were even bills from individual doctors. I thought that a lawsuit might cover all these bills, but I really wasn’t sure what to do in the interim. Some of the bills where huge — $12,000 for a stay in the infectious disease ward, for example. All told, my hospital bills were just under $20,000 – for just two days care, including a number of tests that shouldn’t have been conducted! I’d began paying what I could, until my attorney told me to have the hospital and doctors place a lien on the lawsuit.

After getting in on the class action suit, and returning to work, I decided to share my pain and misery with the world – by writing a story about my experience for DNAinfo, the online publication for which I worked. The headline read: E. coli and I: How My Favorite Taco Stand Poisoned Me. It was one of my most well read stories for DNAinfo, and it’s how Stop Foodborne Illness found me.

Stop Foodborne Illness is a Chicago-based national, nonprofit public health organization dedicated to preventing illness and death from foodborne pathogens like E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella, and the like. It was started by a group of heartbroken mothers, fathers and siblings who lost loved ones to the West Coast E. coli outbreak in 1993. Channeling their grief and anger into hope and change, today Stop provides a number of services to those who have suffered from food poisoning, such as Peer-to-Peer Mentoring, and providing opportunities for people like me to share their story to bring awareness and attention to issues surrounding food safety. They have been integral to getting legislation strengthening food safety passed, including the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.

Stop Foodborne Illness reached out to me because, as they put it, sharing my personal experience helps put a face on the statistics. By bringing awareness and understanding to others, similar situations can be prevented. I truly hope that is the case, because, to be honest, I haven’t gotten over my brush with E. coli.

For one, I haven’t been back to my formerly favorite taco place. Partly because of a pending lawsuit, and partly because – I’m scared. I lost a lot more than just a favorite restaurant in the process. I’ve sworn off fish tacos, even though it was supposedly the cilantro that caused the outbreak. I go to some restaurants and find I’m petrified of fresh, raw veggies. I just don’t trust a lot of places these days – it might be salads, or it might be meats served rare or even medium. Even though these things didn’t factor into my being poisoned, I’ve still lost a lot of trust. Often, it’s those places that don’t keep up appearances. My taco place was never the cleanest, and even though I knew that to be the case, I honestly never gave it a second thought until after I was poisoned. Now, if I go to a restaurant, I make sure to take a look and see if the cooking and serving surfaces are clean and free of any kind of debris. I know this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re serving tainted food, and I also know most of my food phobias aren’t exactly rational. But I had a very serious brush with food poisoning, and a very serious brush with death, and I cannot very much help that.

Even though it’s been more than three years since I was sick and hospitalized with E. coli, this experience still impacts and informs my daily life. Whether it’s lawsuit complications, or phobias with food, the effects are still reverberating through my life and I am frequently reminded of my personal, hellish health scare. And, I’m one of the lucky ones! I am still alive, I don’t have any long-term consequences, I’ve not been permanently injured with something like serious brain damage, and I’ve been fully able to recover. I know life is never entirely risk free, and that even goes for food. But I also know there are lots of actions we can take to educate ourselves and mitigate the risk for ourselves and our loved ones. Won’t you join me?

 

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