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Weiss can't just forget E. coli scare

By Henry Farber / c. Cox News Service

ATLANTA -- Walt Weiss is leadoff hitter for one of the best teams in baseball and a National League All-Star. But he'd trade it all to undo what his family went through last summer, when son Brody, then 3, nearly died after a bacterial infection caused his kidneys to shut down.

"It's such a helpless feeling, watching your boy lie there like that," Weiss said, recalling the week his middle child spent hooked up to tubes at Scottish Rite Children's Medical Center.

Brody's was the household name among the 26 children hospitalized after an outbreak last June at White Water, a Marietta amusement park, of an illness related to a deadly form of E. coli bacteria.

The nation watched, literally, as Brody made what seemed a miraculous recovery. Cameras at the All-Star game zoomed in on his seat at Denver's Coors Field, where he watched his father play just a week after leaving the hospital.

Meanwhile, the Braves shortstop became a spokesman for the families of these very sick children, including one who died.

The park resumes full-time operations this weekend, and with the swimming season approaching, Weiss talked about last summer's trauma.

"Brody's doing real well now," Weiss said. "But I'm afraid his immune system's not what it used to be. He catches everything, and what he catches turns into infections."

But that's heaven compared to 11 months ago. It was bad enough seeing Brody decline day after day, succumbing to the clocklike pattern of symptoms: stomach pains, vomiting, diarrhea, stool turned to almost pure blood, then kidney failure.

To add to the hell, the Weisses were able to see in advance what would go wrong next for Brody. Two of the other victims, Jordan Shook and McCall Akin (the child who died), were at White Water the same day. But because individual immune systems are different, the bacteria took hold in Brody's body two days after the others. The Weisses watched the two other children, also at Scottish Rite, worsen as the days wore on, knowing that Brody's symptoms would match theirs 48 hours later.

Finally, Brody's condition declined to the point that he needed a respirator. At the same time, McCall's family was told that her colon was so badly damaged that it must be removed. Would that be Brody's fate?

"They said there's virtually nothing we could do -- just treat the symptoms as they arise," Weiss said.

Then, for reasons that Weiss can sum up only as a blessing, Brody turned the corner -- on the day his father was named to the All-Star team. A week later, the family got a standing ovation back home in Denver, where Weiss' wife, Terri, and children live during the school year.

One recent afternoon, two hours before game time, the Braves' locker room had a championship feeling. Players looked relaxed and confident about their upcoming game with the Cubs.

Only Weiss, straddling a bench, looked intense. But it wasn't because of his hitting streak, which was about to reach nine games. It was the memory of Brody's battle.

"Just looking at him, it's a constant reminder," Weiss said, his voice shaking slightly. "We feel really blessed at how he's doing. Now he runs around like a normal 4-year-old, and it's just amazing how bad he was for that week."

He and Terri still monitor Brody's condition closely. His kidneys are the main concern. Doctors say there's an outside chance that Brody will need dialysis treatments or even transplants.

The prognosis is basically the same for the dozen or so most seriously stricken survivors, doctors have said.

Despite the publicity that has come with recent E. coli outbreaks, particularly the worst strain -- 0157:H7 -- much remains unknown. Why, for example, do up to 5 percent of patients develop the potentially fatal kidney failure condition known as hemolytic uremic syndrome?

One of the lucky ones at White Water was Brody's 1-year-old brother Bo. A test detected E. coli in his blood, but he didn't get sick.

The Weisses still keep in touch with some of the other victims' parents. Terri Weiss in particular exchanges calls with Marisa Akin, who lost her only child.

For the Weisses, the tangible daily impact of last year's crisis is twofold: a family ban on hamburgers, which have often been associated with E. coli; and the construction of a pool in the back yard of the family's summer home in Marietta. "We've been to water parks all over the country in the past. You could go a million times and nothing would happen," Weiss said. "But there are just too many bad memories for us to go back."

The nation's worst E. coli crisis was the 1994 outbreak that sickened 500 people and killed four children who ate contaminated hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants in the Pacific Northwest.

From that scare, Seattle lawyer William Marler built a reputation as the nation's leading counsel for litigants in E. coli cases. He represents five White Water families, four of whom have sued. "We are in what I would consider a rapid road toward a trial, maybe later this year," Marler said.

Weiss is the only Marler client who has not sued. Weiss said he is keeping his options open, depending on Brody's progress.

Is he angry at White Water? "None of us is exempt from the problems of life," he said. "Maybe it could have been avoided. Maybe there was some negligence because of the chlorine levels. Who can say?

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