Family's nightmare began with secondary infection
Eighth-grader Faith Maxwell is a pretty happy kid. Considering that she isn't allowed to play soccer or eat school lunches regularly and every visit to the doctor might end with word she needs a kidney transplant.
Her family is still reeling from the worst time of their lives, 11 years ago. That's when Faith, then 2, almost died from E. coli O157:H7 she caught from an infected kid who got it from eating undercooked ground beef at school.
"We just try not to take any day for granted," says her dad, John Maxwell. Having a child with kidney disease from a food-borne illness is "like playing Russian roulette — you just don't know what's going to happen."
Her parents don't let Faith play contact sports, for fear a blow to her kidneys might damage the weakened organs. And they almost always pack her lunch at home.
The 1998 outbreak at Finley Elementary in Finley, Wash., was linked to undercooked taco meat served for lunch. It sickened 11 children, 10 of whom were students at the school. Faith, who got it from playing with one of the other victims, a friend of her big sister's, was the youngest to fall ill and by far the sickest. Far from being rare, "secondary infections" in which children pass the bug to other children they play with are common.
The ground beef for the tacos was provided to the school as part of the National School Lunch Program. It came from an Omaha company, Northern States Beef, which has since been sold to a Canadian company.
Although later tests of leftover ground beef from the lunch tested negative for E. coli O157:H7, the Washington State Department of Health report on the outbreak said the school didn't cook the meat sufficiently to kill the bacteria. The report said officials found "golf ball-size chunks of leftover ground beef with pink, undercooked centers."
E.coli O157:H7 can have life-long effects on its victims, including the permanent and sometimes progressive kidney damage that Faith suffered.
The Maxwell family shared in a $4.6 million judgment parents of the sick children won in a lawsuit against the school district.
"At first, we thought she had the flu; she was just really pale," says John Maxwell, 46, who grew up in the small town of Finley, in southeastern Washington. When Faith's mom, Donna Maxwell, realized how sick she was, she took her to Kennewick General Hospital, where doctors told her Faith needed to be taken by helicopter to Children's Hospital in Seattle.
The second day she was there, doctors began to suspect Faith might have E. coli O157:H7.
Between 5% and 10% of children infected with O157:H7 develop a potentially life-threatening complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome or HUS, which in about half of cases causes acute kidney failure. Faith got HUS, as did two students. When John, then a long-haul truck driver, got the word Faith was sick, he was on a run in Canada. He turned his truck around and drove straight back home to drop off his truck, then to Seattle to be with her.
Faith "was in the hospital for 30 days, and she was on dialysis for 17," he says. He and his wife "just stayed at the parking lot for a while — we didn't leave her side." After a week of sleeping in their car they moved to Ronald McDonald House, which puts up parents near the hospital while their children are being treated.
It was a grim month. Faith's skin turned yellowish as her kidneys stopped working.
"You couldn't touch her because she hurt all over," John says. Then she began to hallucinate. "She'd see little dark people running around on the floor."
Eventually John had to stop working. "They wanted me to go back on the road, and I just told them, 'I can't leave,' " he says. Despite the financial struggle, he doesn't regret it. "A job. .. can be replaced, but your child can't be."
Once Faith got home, the nightmare didn't end. "She has to take so many medications, you just watch everything, bacterial, everything. She was on high blood pressure meds for a long time," her dad says.
Now if Faith she gets sick, her parents take her straight to the hospital. "You want to make sure to catch it in time," John says. She has to see specialists in Seattle every six months to get her kidney function checked. "They say it will never get better. We just hope it won't get worse."
Every once in a while, the Maxwells let Faith and her little sister, Providence, 9, buy school lunches, but usually they pack them. "I don't want them to know that I don't trust the school lunch," John says. "I don't want them to feel different."
The beef used in the tacos at Finley Elementary on Oct. 6, 1998, had been frozen for at least a year, according to the Washington State Health Department report about the outbreak. It was first cooked at a central school district kitchen, then transported to Finley Elementary in a district van that had no hot holding capacity, the report said.
"At the (district's) other schools the trays of meat were placed on the stove top, and the burners were lit to keep the food warm," the report says. At Finley, they were simply stored in warming bins, it noted.
The family had to deal not only with the physical aftermath of Faith's ordeal, but also the financial problems it caused.
It was hard suing the school district in the town he grew up in, but they had to do it, John says. "We had hospital bills coming at us, and we ended up having to file (for) bankruptcy," he says.
To pay their bills, the Maxwells joined in a suit with 10 other families against the Finley School District and the beef supplier. The district and Northern States Beef said there had never been E. coli O157:H7 in the ground beef. Northern States reached a confidential settlement with the families before the case went to trial.
The jury held the school district responsible on April 21, 2001, a verdict upheld by the state appellate court. On Sept. 5, 2003, the Washington State Supreme Court declined to review the case, and the families were finally paid.
Most of the judgment, $3.9 million, went to Faith and her family. The sum included payment of past medical expenses and $200,000 for her parents' emotional suffering, according to the verdict. The Maxwells were able to cancel their bankruptcy petition, which had not yet gone through, and pay their bills.
Northern States Beef's settlement with the families was paid in 2001, according to Bill Marler of Marler Clark, the firm that represented the plaintiffs. The company was later sold to XL Four Star Beef of Omaha, which is owned by XL Foods of Calgary, which is owned by Nilsson Bros. of Edmonton, Alberta. The company no longer sells to the National School Lunch Program.
In 2004, the Maxwell family moved to California, where they had relatives, and then to Hawaii, where John had gotten a job as a project manager for a construction company.
Whenever the girls started in a new school, their parents checked out the kitchen. "It's our responsibility to make sure, (because) you can't just assume that the schools are doing what they're supposed to be doing," he says.
The case made big news in Washington state. Marler met with the state's then-superintendent of Public Education, Terry Bergeson, to discuss food safety in the schools. One of the things the schools started doing was buying more foods pre-cooked from suppliers rather than entrusting the school districts,he says.
When construction jobs dried up in Hawaii, the Maxwells moved back to Washington state this year, to Kennewick, about 8 miles from Finley.
John Maxwell is convinced Faith and the other children got sick because adults — at the meat company or the school district — were trying to save money by cutting corners.
School food shouldn't be the cheapest possible, he says. "This is the future, this is our kids, they should have the best of everything," he says.
"All the money in the world isn't worth the life of one child, especially if it's your child. How would they feel if it were their child?"