Getting back to normal: Locust Grove recovering from E. coli outbreak

David Waddle was "never the same" after eating a down-home meal two years ago at a popular Locust Grove restaurant.

On July 30, the Cabot, Ark., man died in his sleep at age 63.

His widow, Pat Waddle, believes the rare and virulent form of E. coli he contracted from that meal sapped much of the life from him.

"He never totally got back to who he was," she said.

A construction worker, Waddle stood 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed 200 pounds. He was a strong man who always needed to be doing something.

"He never got back to being strong again. Both emotionally and physically, it took its toll," his widow said. "He just couldn't make it two more years."

Waddle was among 341 people who were sickened two years ago in the largest U.S. outbreak of E. coli 0111 ever. Chad Ingle, 26, of Pryor died, and more than 70 people were hospitalized.

State epidemiologists tracked the source of the rare bacteria to Country Cottage Restaurant in Locust Grove, a popular eating establishment and tourist destination in northeastern Oklahoma. There, chicken-fried steak and catfish were served buffet-style, and it was known throughout the region for its tasty food.

"It was just a nightmare," recalls Royal Dunn, who nearly died from the deadly bacteria.

The West Siloam Springs man spent seven weeks in the hospital, ringing up $489,000 in medical bills. His health insurance paid most of it, but he still had to pay a substantial amount.

Dunn, 65, ate at the restaurant, then drove two days to California to visit his daughter. He was there when he fell ill. Unconscious for three weeks, his kidneys, liver and digestive system shut down, and his family was told he would die.

"Doctors told my family they were looking at just hours," he said.

But he didn't die.

Today, Dunn has returned to his job as camp host at Natural Falls State Park in West Siloam Springs. But he still suffers the effects of his illness.

"I still don't have my strength back. And if you see me late in the day staggering, I'm not drunk. I lost a lot of my motor movements," he said.

Big hit

The town of Locust Grove took a big economic hit when Country Cottage, the town's primary draw, closed down for nearly three months after the outbreak of foodborne illness, Locust Grove Mayor Shawn Bates said.

"It's hard to overstate the importance of that restaurant," he said at the time. "It brought people into town by the carload, the vanload, even by the busload."

While there, those people also filled vehicles with gas and shopped at local stores, bringing in much-needed sales tax revenues.

When Country Cottage went down, other restaurants in town lost customers too as fear gripped the area. Notorious problems with the town's water system fueled ideas the deadly bacteria may have come from the community's water.

When it was discovered Country Cottage used its private well for two hours during the period the bacteria was transmitted, the state Health Department saw that as a distinct possibility.

Extensive testing of that well and other private wells throughout the area showed there was E. coli present but not the rare strain that had killed Ingle and sickened hundreds of others.

In April 2009, the state Health Department released the final report of its nine-month investigation. Epidemiologists concluded Country Cottage was the source of the bacteria but, as in many foodborne illness cases, they never determined how the pathogen entered the restaurant and spread to customers.

Lawsuits ongoing

About 30 former Country Cottage customers who fell ill have filed lawsuits against the restaurant, according to William Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in foodborne illness litigation.

His firm, Marler Clark, represents 14 clients who were sickened in the outbreak. He said his 14 clients alone racked up $2 million in medical costs. All the lawsuits - including Cynthia Ingle's, who filed a wrongful death action on behalf of her husband, Chad - have been consolidated into one action in U.S. District Court, he said.

"We're litigating with the insurance companies over how much coverage the restaurant actually has. Is it $3 million or $4 million," Marler said.

"How the money gets distributed is still left for another day."

He expects a ruling sometime after Sept. 1. His firm is providing its services pro bono and is asking each individual's health insurer to waive reimbursement.

"There is no way people can be fairly compensated," Marler said. "It's a horrible tragedy what these people went through."

Back to normal

Two years later, life goes on in Locust Grove, Bates said.

"We're stronger than we were. But I hate that we had to go through that," he said. "There are families I know who were sick and they've gotten back to some normalcy."

Country Cottage has tried to get back to normal, too. It reopened three months after the outbreak began. The restaurant now offers family-style meal service instead of its traditional buffet.

By Bates' account, the restaurant is gradually regaining customers.

"It's not the same as before," he said.

The restaurant's owners, Dale and Linda Moore, have never spoken publicly about the outbreak. But many who know them say they were emotionally devastated by what happened.

Telephone calls to the Moore family for comment weren't returned.

"Locust Grove is the same Locust Grove. We just had to face some adversity," Bates said.

"We haven't forgotten. But we've had to move on and put that behind us."

Outbreak statistics at a glance

Source of outbreak: Country Cottage Restaurant, Locust Grove

Outbreak organism: E. coli 0111:NM

Vehicle of contamination: Unknown

Method of spread: Foodborne transmission

Confirmed outbreak period: Aug. 15-24, 2008

Cases: 341

Hospitalizations: 70

Deaths: 1

People interviewed: 1,823

Time devoted to investigation: 6,481 hours (as of 3/16/09)

Source: Oklahoma State Department of Health's Final Report on E. coli 0111 Outbreak