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From hunger pangs to stomach pains

Karen Roebuck


August 3, 2004

Brandon and Darcy Ridge couldn't enjoy their honeymoon in Jamaica.

Marc Brokenbek lost 18 pounds in less than a week and spent five days in the hospital after his temperature soared to 105.

Albert Scarano was released from the hospital after back surgery only to be knocked down by the hoagie he picked up on the way home.

Jeff Swartz said his digestive system still hasn't recovered from the club sandwich he had a month ago.

Lisa Hyde laughs at how she returned to the deli counter to demand tomatoes - it turns out she would have been better off without.

They are among the people sickened by Roma tomatoes in a still-growing salmonellosis outbreak linked to Sheetz convenience stores. Officials in five states have confirmed 394 cases of the gastrointestinal illness that causes abdominal pain, diarrhea, headache and fever. All were infected in early July.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that up to 30 times more were sickened in the salmonellosis outbreak, but, like the Ridges, never were tested. That means more than 11,000 people could have been stricken in the outbreak.

"The thousands we spent on the honeymoon was a waste ... to sit on the toilet and sleep -- that was it," said Brandon Ridge, 27, a sales representative from Charlotte, N.C.

He, his bride and several friends stopped for lunch-on-the-go at a Sheetz convenience store near the Pennsylvania-West Virginia line the day after the Ridges' July 3 wedding in Wheeling, W.Va. They were headed home to Charlotte before flying to Jamaica the next day.

Their $2,800 honeymoon package included sightseeing, food and drinks, but they were unable to enjoy any of it.

"We were just devastated. There were so many things to do, and we couldn't do anything," Ridge said. Their only outings were to see a nurse, he said. They learned of the salmonellosis outbreak after returning home.

"We thought it was all the stress from the wedding," Ridge said. "We couldn't even go out of our room the entire time we were in Jamaica, because we were so sick."

The Ridges and some others are trying to forget the wretched -- and often retching -- experience, while others are planning lawsuits. Some already have settled claims with Sheetz, which has agreed to pay medical expenses and lost wages for customers who became sick.

Most people recover without treatment in four to seven days; others are hospitalized with severe dehydration. In rare cases, the salmonella bacteria can spread to become a life-threatening blood infection.

Brokenbek, 26, of North Huntingdon Township, suffered more than most. He spent five days in the hospital after his temperature spiked to 105.

"I lost 18 pounds when I was in there, which my wife said was a godsend, but it wasn't the ideal diet," said the 5-foot-10 Brokenbek, who weighed 168 pounds when he was released from the hospital.

He was among the outbreak's first casualties, falling ill July 5, his first wedding anniversary. The couple canceled that celebration and were on their way to a Tim McGraw concert the following night when Brokenbek realized he was too sick to go. His friends dropped them at his in-laws' home, where he took a nap before heading to the emergency room.

Doctors initially suspected spinal meningitis, an infection of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord that had killed a friend of his four years ago, said Brokenbek, a sales clerk and business student at Penn State-McKeesport.

"I was relieved to learn it probably was food poisoning," he said. Brokenbek, his wife and a friend from Harrisburg had stopped for a late-night snack at the Irwin Sheetz about 2 a.m. July 4, on their way home from a party.

When Brokenbek learned his friend and another hospitalized patient who had eaten at Sheetz were suffering similar symptoms, he said, "That's when it dawned on me that we probably got sick from Sheetz."

Brokenbek was released from the hospital July 10, a day after state investigators started looking into the surge in salmonellosis cases.

Scarano, 41, of Greensburg, was discharged from the hospital July 3 after back surgery.

"The first stop I made was Sheetz," he said. His 15-year-old daughter bought him an Italian hoagie. He ate half that day and half the next. Three days later, he got another Italian sub from Sheetz and ate it over two days.

On July 9, Scarano, who has been on disability since suffering a heart attack 3 1/2 years ago, became ill with stomach cramps, diarrhea and a fever. He tested positive for salmonellosis and said he was sick for six days.

"It was really, really rough getting up and down after surgery," said Scarano, who had 17 staples in his back. "Every couple minutes, I had to run to the bathroom."

Swartz, 32, of Greensburg, was hospitalized for five days and missed 2 1/2 weeks of work in the warehouse of an electrical products distributor. He said his digestive system has not completely recovered, and he still takes medication.

He was hospitalized for five days in an isolation unit, unable to see his 6-month-old son, Trevor.

"That was the worst thing. I wanted to see my son in the worst way," he said.

Working a second job with an ambulance service, Swartz often eats fast-food. He is planning a lawsuit over his ordeal, but still eats at Sheetz. "Why not? It's nothing to be afraid of," he said. "It could happen anywhere."

He said he plans to sue "to be reimbursed for my (medical) co-pays, my medical bills and my lost time off work and to be compensated for lost time with my son."

Hyde, 38, recalled how annoyed she was when she bit into her sandwich and realized the tomatoes had been left off her BLT. She returned to the Irwin Sheetz counter and demanded that they be added.

The tainted tomatoes infected her and her husband, Steven, with salmonellosis, making them violently ill and ruining their vacation to the Dominican Republic.

Now recovered, she laughs at the irony.

The Greensburg couple already have settled their claims with Sheetz, which agreed to reimburse them $2,500 for their medical expenses and their vacation, Lisa Hyde said.

She praised the company's quick settlement and said she never told them she is an attorney and arbitrator. Her husband is a chef.

Brandon Ridge, the sales representative from Charlotte, and his wife, Darcy, 23, an elementary school art teacher, never intended to file a claim for their honeymoon illness. After learning about their story from the Tribune-Review, Steve Sheetz, chairman of the Altoona-based chain of 300 stores, said he intends "to make it right."

"We'll try to get them to go back on their honeymoon -- in good health this time," Sheetz said. "We'll try to send them back to Jamaica, if they want to go."

"That's wonderful, very generous," Ridge said. "That would be great. We just don't have any time."

His wife returns to her teaching job in a week and a half and he already took his vacation, so Ridge isn't sure when they can get away again.

Karen Roebuck can be reached at or (412) 320-7939.

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