Linda Rivera, Hospitalized After Eating Nestlé Cookie Dough, Tries to Stay Alive
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
LAS VEGAS -- In Room 519 of Kindred Hospital, Linda Rivera can no longer speak.
Her mute state, punctuated only by groans, is the latest downturn in the swift collapse of her health that began in May when she curled up on her living room couch and nonchalantly ate several spoonfuls of the Nestlé cookie dough her family had been consuming for years. Federal health officials believe she is among 80 people in 31 states sickened by cookie dough contaminated with a deadly bacteria, E. coli O157:H7.
The impact of the infection has been especially severe for Rivera and nine other victims who developed a life-threatening complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome. One, a 4-year-old girl from South Carolina, had a stroke and is partially paralyzed.
The E. coli victims are among millions -- one in four Americans -- sickened by food-borne illnesses each year. As waves of recalls have caused the public to lose confidence in the safety of food, lawmakers are scrambling to respond. In July, the House approved legislation that would give the Food and Drug Administration broad new powers and place new responsibilities on food producers. The bill would speed up the ability of health officials to track down the source of an outbreak and give the government the power to mandate a recall, rather than rely on food producers to voluntarily pull tainted products from the shelves.
The Senate is expected to take up its version in the fall, and the issue has become a high priority for the White House.
It is impossible to say whether new laws and tougher enforcement would have prevented the contamination of the Nestlé cookie dough, which the company voluntarily pulled from stores hours after the government linked it to the outbreak.
Last week, chilled packages of the chocolate-chip cookie dough returned to supermarkets after a two-month absence as company executives tried in vain to find the cause of the contamination. They scrubbed their production plant, bought new ingredients and started making dough again.
Linda Rivera has just been trying to stay alive. Her cascading problems started about seven days after she ate the dough when her kidneys shut down and she went into septic shock. Then doctors had to remove part of her colon, which had become contaminated. Soon, her gallbladder was inflamed and had to be excised. Shortly after, her liver stopped functioning. It is unclear exactly what is causing her loss of speech, although the toxin produced by the E. coli O157:H7 bacteria can attack the brain.
Of all the victims, Rivera has spent the most time in hospitals -- about 120 days since May. She was recovering well enough at one point to go home for nine days but, during that reprieve, she had to be rushed to the emergency room three times.
Her case is unusual because E. coli O157:H7 tends to most seriously affect the very young and old. At 57, Linda Rivera is not part of either vulnerable group. Her situation is also unique for the number of major organs that have been injured. Her family and one of her physicians said she had no underlying health problems that would have exacerbated the infection.
"Once these patients get into a downward spiral, it's hard to pinpoint why things go wrong," said Michael Gross, a kidney specialist who has treated Rivera. "The chances of her coming out of the hospital and getting into a normal life cycle are low."
The Rivera family never gave much thought to food-borne illness. "You watch a commercial, you go into a store and you just assume it's okay to eat," said Linda's husband, Richard, a sales manager for a Web site. "I assume if it's on a shelf, it's safe. But this whole thing has changed the way I look at food."