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E. coli infection puts boys at risk of kidney problems

Holding their sons, Scott, 2, and Evan, 5, JoAnn and Tony Klaus recall the boys' frightening kidney illness that resulted from an outbreak of E. coli bacteria at a Wendy’s restaurant in Salem last summer.

Although their children seem fine after battling back from illness, JoAnn and Tony Klaus worry about the long-term effects.

The laughter and smiles have returned. So have the occasional cries of exasperation that only little brothers seem to bring out.

Seven months after contracting the E. coli bacteria from a Wendy’s restaurant, two Salem boys appear to be recovering nicely. But Evan Klaus, 5, and his brother Scott, 2, won’t be certain for many years.

The sons of Tony and JoAnn Klaus were the two most seriously affected by the outbreak last summer from the restaurant at 2375 Commercial St. SE.

Evan spent 10 days at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland in an intensive care unit undergoing dialysis. Scott, on a different floor at Doernbecher, was hospitalized for almost a month. He spent much of the first week whimpering in pain and could not urinate for two weeks.

The Salem family is pursuing legal action against Wendy’s, but a settlement is probably more than a year away until some of the less severe cases are resolved.

In all, the Marion County Health Department found 17 confirmed cases and more than 65 other presumed cases of E. coli infection.

This did not have to happen, said JoAnn. What if Scott needs (a new) kidney some day? It’s pretty scary.

Both boys were diagnosed with hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), a complication that occurs in 5 to 10 percent of E. coli infections. The syndrome slowly damages kidneys by causing the organ to be overworked. HUS can lead to reduced kidney function and eventually kidney failure in youngsters. Although the illness may pass, survivors like Evan and Scott will face a lifelong risk of kidney problems.

One survivor in 20 requires a kidney transplant at some point, and there is an increased risk of lupus, diabetes and other health problems that can impair quality of life.

Both of these kids have a lot of risk in the long run, said the family’s attorney, Bill Marler. Marler, from Seattle, has helped clients win more than $100 million in claims involving food contamination in the past 10 years. He and other lawyers will meet next week in Portland to attempt mediating some of the claims.

Representatives for Wendy’s have said the company will work with victims to reach a compensation agreement.

Tony and JoAnn thought they would save some time picking up dinner on their way home from a meeting last August. The couple went to the Wendy’s drive-up window and ordered four bacon cheeseburgers for themselves and their two older children, Gary, 17, and Emily, 14. They ordered chicken nuggets for Evan and Scott.

The two boys began feeling ill a few days later, checked into Salem Hospital on a Thursday and were moved to Doernbecher the next day, Aug. 25.

A British television show documented the family’s experience, and Tony and JoAnn still find it difficult to watch.

I remember when I was with Scott I was just thinking if there was some way I could switch places with him, I would have done it in a minute, Tony said.

Gary and Emily kept the house running while Tony, who works for Frito-Lay, and JoAnn spent most of their time at Doernbecher.

I remember driving by the restaurant and being really upset, JoAnn said. My two kids were still in the hospital and they were open for business.

The family says they are not angry at Wendy’s, but they do want the company to provide for the boys’ future medical needs. They hope the lawsuit will encourage other fast food companies to improve their food handling policies as well. The Klaus’ have become more careful when eating out and urge other families to do the same.

I had no idea what E. coli can do to kids, Tony said. I just wish there was some way I could convey how bad it is.

The boys still make regular trips to the doctor’s office for blood pressure checks and urinalysis. By August, doctors should have a better idea about how seriously the infection damaged their kidneys.

Even though they are full of life right now, Marler said, their kidney’s are like time bombs. Those little kidneys wear out. It’s a real nasty deal, because it doesn’t show up for years.

He keeps in touch with clients from almost 10 years ago, and some are showing signs of kidney problems as they enter their teen-age years. Not enough research is available to know how much Evan and Scott will be affected.

Evan and Scott dislike the regular trips to the doctor’s office, the medicines and other routines that have developed since the outbreak, but are mostly unaware of what they went through.

When I was driving Evan home from the hospital, he wanted to stop for lunch, Tony said. I told him I’d fix him something when we got home. He said ‘How ‘bout we stop for a hamburger?’ I said I didn’t think that was going to happen.

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