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Student sickened by E. coli-Tainted Lettuce files Suit

A victim of the June 2008 lettuce E. coli outbreak in Thurston and Pierce counties filed suit today in the Superior Court of Washington, King County. Heather Whybrew of Federal Way, Washington was a student at Pacific Lutheran University in Parkland when she was infected with E. coli O157:H7. The lawsuit was filed against Northwest Fruit and Produce Inc and “John Does,” Growers, Shippers and Suppliers by attorney William Marler and Marler Clark, a Seattle law firm dedicated to representing victims of foodborne illness.

Ten people were sickened in the outbreak, which was traced to bagged, commercial romaine lettuce distributed by Northwest Produce to food service locations including Pacific Lutheran University (PLU). Ms. Whybrew fell ill on May 16, after taking all of her meals at PLU. She experienced cramping, nausea, and diarrhea, which became bloody the next day. In extreme pain, she went to the school health center, and was told to go to the emergency room. She was admitted to the hospital in Federal Way, Washington where she tested positive for E. coli O157:H7.

Ms. Whybrew battled the E. coli infection over the next week, developing pneumonia as well as blood clots in her extremities and IV insertion sites, for which she required Heparin, a blood thinner. When kidney irregularities emerged, she was transferred to Children’s Hospital in Seattle, where she remained until June 6. She was hospitalized for 20 days. She continues to recover from the infection and its complications—she must give herself two Heparin shots daily in the abdomen to keep blood clots at bay.

“Leafy greens from California are the sleeping giant,” said Whybrew’s attorney William Marler. Once E. coli gets on—or into—the product, it is almost impossible to wash off. A tiny number of bacteria can sicken or even kill. Positive changes were made after the terrible spinach E coli outbreak in 2006, but this outbreak and others indicate that there are still problems in the system. Salinas, California is again suspected as being the source of the lettuce that sickened Heather and nine others, and that is where regulation is the tightest. There’s clearly a great deal of work still to do.”

“I have a very high tolerance for pain,” said Ms. Whybrew in a statement. “I have experienced sports injuries, undergone reconstructive surgery, and have had a craniotomy to remove a brain tumor. I have had chemo and a difficult rehab from partial paralysis—but I have never experienced anything like the pain from E. coli infection.”

E. coli is often contracted by consuming food or beverage that has been contaminated by animal (especially cattle) manure. The majority of food borne E. coli outbreaks has been traced to contaminated ground beef; however leafy vegetables that have been contaminated in fields or during processing have been increasingly identified as the source of outbreaks.

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