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Town Pulls Together as Answers Sought to Finley E. coli Outbreak

November 11, 1998

By Annette Cary

Herald staff writer

At 10, Debbi and Gary Henderson’s daughter Jacqueline can tell doctors a thing or two.

Like how to draw her blood so it doesn’t hurt too much.

She learned the fine points of shots and needles after falling ill from E. coli poisoning 16 days ago. She’s one of 12 children infected in an outbreak believed started with a school lunch served at Finley Elementary.

Jacqueline’s still not eating much – she knows making her digestive system work hurts – and she’s down from 58 pounds to a slight 53. Her mother’s goal is to have her eating a full meal again by Thanksgiving.

And her parents won’t soon forget the pain she suffered.

“It felt like someone was taking knives and stabbing me,” said Jacqueline, a talkative, composed fifth-grader. “It hurt really bad.”

But all her parents are talking about now is how lucky they are.

Life was just getting back to normal in Finley at the end of last week, when the rural community was hit with the news that a 12th child – the youngest yet – has E. coli poisoning. Two-year-old Faith Maxwell is hospitalized in Seattle with failing kidneys and will require dialysis.

But Jacqueline is home and won’t suffer any long-term effects.

And her family has a renewed appreciation for life in Finley, a sprawling, sparsely populated rural community where neighbors have pulled together to help the families with sick children.

The Hendersons don’t harbor any ill will toward the school district – and are resigned to he fact they may never know what caused the outbreak. Tacos served Oct. 6 or lettuce served Oct. 6 and 8 are suspected.

Even Jacqueline says, “I don’t really think it was the school’s fault. It was an accident.”

In fact, the family can hardly say enough about how helpful school officials, neighbors, co-workers and friends have been.

“One thing I was impressed with is everyone from the superintendent on down came in to (Kennewick General Hospital) to check in on the kids,” Gary said. “Everyone was there for moral support on day one…People would call every day to see what we needed.”

A parents group arranged baby sitting for families who had sick children at Kennewick General Hospital and well children at home. They packed school lunches for the healthy children and dropped more lunches by the hospital for parents.

One family came home to find its lawn mown. Others had their farm animals and pets fed and watered by neighbors and school volunteers.

Many people sent gifts to the children at Kennewick General and the three children, including Jacqueline, who were in danger of developing kidney complications and were sent to Children’s Hospital in Seattle.

Jacqueline brought home a big box of stuffed animals, including a dozen Beanie Babies sent to cheer her up.

“People we didn’t even know sent them,” said Jacqueline’s brother Eddie, 13.

When Jacqueline’s doctor recommended she go to Seattle, her mother went with her while Gary stayed home to care for their other three children.

It was scary, Jacqueline says. “One night I wondered what would happen to me next. I didn’t know whether I would be sick the next day.”

At Children’s the beds were full on the unit that usually cares for patients with E. coli poisoning. So Jacqueline was sent upstairs to the cancer unit, where children with bald heads ran around with their chemotherapy treatments tucked under their pajamas.

They wanted to know when Jacqueline would lose her hair.

The ward helped Debbi remember how fortunate she was, despite the seriousness of her daughter’s illness, she said.

Her child should be back at school fulltime on Monday.

“We are very, very lucky. And we’re very thankful to everyone,” Debbie said.

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