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Freedom sisters still suffer months after eating contaminated eggs

by Donna Jones, Santa Cruz Sentinel

September 24, 2010

Sarah Lewis was ready for dessert after an uninspiring banquet dinner in celebration of her sister's graduation from San Jose State last May. The custard tart topped with fruit served by the Santa Clara restaurant hit the spot.

But two days later Lewis, 30, was in intensive care at Dominican Hospital with severe intestinal distress, a heart that was beating too fast and an elusive diagnosis.

More than a week went by before Lewis found out she and her sister, Stacey Walker, were infected with salmonella, a strain later traced by public health officials from the restaurant's tart to an outbreak that led to a massive nationwide egg recall in August.

Four months later, the two sisters from Freedom still have not fully recovered.

Wednesday, in Washington, D.C., Lewis testified about her ordeal before a Congressional panel and confronted the owners of Wright County Egg of Galt, Iowa, one of two producers linked to the salmonella outbreak.

"I just want us to get better food," Lewis said Friday, sitting in the office of Freedom Meat Lockers, the business owned by her parents, Howard and Debbie Walker. "I just want to feel better."

Lewis recalled being curled up in the fetal position on a gurney in the emergency room at Dominican, suffering from intense pain, vomiting and diarrhea, a doctor telling her she might need immediate surgery after a CT scan showed an extremely inflamed bowel.

She was in and out of the hospital for the next month, her two young daughters, Hailey, 7, and Kyndall, 4, devastated. In two months, she lost 30 pounds.

"I'm 30. I'm supposed to be healthy," Lewis said.

Though Lewis, who suffers from asthma and described herself as sickly as a child, was the more seriously ill of the two sisters, both suffered similar symptoms. Both said they still have to watch what they eat, they tire easily and their immune systems have been compromised by the infection and the antibiotics they took to combat it.

Walker, who is an athletic trainer at Christopher High School in Gilroy, said she's caught one thing after another from students.

"I'm just getting over bronchitis," said Walker, 28. "I'm trying to have stamina, but you just get tired."

Lewis said while she was testifying Wednesday, she was asked to open a binder with photographs taken at the Wright County Egg plant. It was the first time she had seen conditions at the Iowa facility. Looking at images of dead chickens, maggots, manure piled so high it pushed out a wall, she said she struggled to keep her poise.

Friday she walked through her family's business, where she keeps the books. Fresh beef, pig and lamb carcasses hung in a room-sized refrigerator with spotless floors and shining stainless steel walls; counters in the kitchen and the deli were pristine.

"Our place is so clean. We're so proud of it," Lewis said. "It was a shock to see somebody who does not care, does not abide by federal and state regulations."

After testifying, Lewis briefly met with members of the DeCoster family, the owners of Wright County Egg, at their request. She said she agreed to the meeting so they could see how their actions affected a real person.

"I told them, 'I'm not a number. I'm a mother, a daughter and a wife. Look at me, look at who I am.'" Lewis said.

She said two female family members wept, and father Austin "Jack" DeCoster, who earlier had told the congressional panel that he prayed for the salmonella victims, appeared moved. Son Peter DeCoster did not.

More than 1,500 people across the country were sickened by the salmonella-contaminated eggs, according to the Centers for Disease Control. A half-billion eggs were recalled from Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, also of Iowa, in connection with the outbreak,

Lewis is suing Wright County Egg. She said lawsuits aren't the way she prefers to handle issues, but she wants her medical bills covered. Her insurance has already paid out more than $100,000.

Lewis said her daughters love scrambled eggs, and after her experience, she started using only pasteurized Egg Beaters. But she's gone back to buying eggs from Glaum Ranch, an Aptos-based company she knows and trusts.

She's not sure what will come from her testimony and that of another salmonella victim, Carol Lobato, 77, before the House oversight and investigation subcommittee.

Legislation that would give the federal Food and Drug Administration more power to recall tainted products, increase inspections of food processors and impose stricter food safety standards is stalled in the Senate.

Lewis said the egg debacle came after an incident of salmonella-poisoned peanut butter, and Thursday, news broke of infant formula contaminated by beetles and beetle parts.

"I really hope they tighten regulations on these people," Lewis said. "I hope they'll take into account what Carol and I said."

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