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E. coli Miracle Girl's New Hurdle-Surgery


December 22, 1995


Brianne Kiner, the girl who confounded doctors three years ago by clinging to life after eating a tainted fast-food hamburger, is facing a new hurdle this Christmas: surgery on her vocal cords.

You would never guess from watching the bright-eyed 12-year-old playing happily with her new kitten - a silver-blue furball named Meg - that anything is wrong with her health. But Brianne will soon need kidney transplants and her life probably will be shortened by chronic respiratory problems and diabetes.

Brianne and her mom have learned to live in the moment and right now it's Christmas. Both are glad Brianne is home from her New Mexico school for kids with special needs.

"I love school work and I have a whole bunch of friends," said Brianne, who has difficulty speaking because of a stroke she suffered while hospitalized with a deadly form of food poisoning.

Brianne spent 169 days at Children's Hospital in Seattle, one of hundreds of people throughout the West who were sickened in early 1993 after eating Jack In The Box hamburgers contaminated with E. coli bacteria. Three children died.

Sitting around the Christmas tree, laughing as Meg the Maine coon cat gnaws on the tree needles, Brianne and her mother are not thinking about next week's surgery. Compared with the medical hell both have gone through, an operation on Brianne's vocal cords so her voice can rise above a stage whisper is relatively minor.

What is on their minds is helping families of other youngsters who have been traumatized by a life-altering accident or disease cope with the pressures that can tear a family apart. It happened to the Kiners: Suzanne and Rex Kiner filed for divorce last week.

During much of Brianne's hospitalization, "I was awake 20 hours a day helping to nurse her," said Suzanne. "So many life-and-death decisions had to be made on the spot. When you come out of a situation like that you are exhausted, you're numb. It took out a 27-year-long marriage.

"You are really alone when you are going through a trauma like that. I wish there had been someone who could have taken my hands and said, without having an agenda of their own, 'I'm here for you.' "

So Suzanne created an organization that will hold a family's hands and much more.

In a settlement with Foodmaker Inc., the parent company of Jack In The Box, Brianne will receive about $10 million. Suzanne Kiner and her husband were awarded about $500,000 each. Last February, Suzanne used $95,000 of her settlement to start the Brianne Kiner Foundation for Exceptional Parents and Children. Her lawyer, Bill Marler, also made a generous donation, she said.

Dr. Tom Prentice, executive director of the foundation, said 70 percent to 80 percent of the families whose children experience such a crisis end up in either divorce or serious marital strife.

"There's depression, alcohol and drug abuse," said Prentice. "The wife becomes a full-time care-giver and the husbands work long hours and become detached. Parents have this sense that 'I am in this alone and no one understands.' "

A mentoring program is now being established in which volunteer professionals and lay persons will be available to provide support. Mentor training begins in February "so when a family calls, they'll have some place to turn," said Prentice. The organization will also help parents connect with other appropriate programs in the community.

"If there is a lack of respite care, we'll try to find it so that the father and mother can go off for a weekend and be a husband and wife," said Prentice. "If there is a service that is missing, we are going to try to develop it."

All these plans take money and the start-up supply is rapidly dwindling, said Suzanne.

The settlement money Brianne received is held in trust and cannot be used for anything but her health and welfare. That limitation is frustrating to Brianne, who said she gave the foundation $20 in quarters that she had saved.

Brianne and her mother hope the same outpouring of love and attention that they received will result in contributions to the foundation. People interested in volunteering for the mentor program can call (206) 771-8899 or write the foundation at P.O. Box 1053, Edmonds, WA 98020.

"Life stops for a family in trauma," said Suzanne. "Bri kept dying and our family was dying with her. There's nothing out there for the families."

Many parents of E. coli victims successfully sued Jack In The Box to recover damages. What worries attorney Marler is that dozens of parents whose children were sickened by the contaminated hamburger will soon lose the right to bring suit against Jack In The Box.

Under Washington law, the statute of limitations for parents to sue runs out next month. There are probably about 25 families with potential claims who may not know that their time is running out, said Marler.

Brianne, who was not supposed to make to her 11th birthday, will be 13 next month. "She gets to have her first pair of pumps - just little heels," Suzanne Kiner said.

Brianne blushed. Then, a few moments later, she walked over to her mom, wrapped her arms around her and said, "I love you."

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