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Woman who lost her baby to sue over bad cheese

Glenn Bohn

Vancouver Sun

Molly Sandvick was eight weeks pregnant when she and her fiance Matthew Turetsky took a float plane from Seattle to Victoria last month for a weekend getaway.

The couple, who are getting married this weekend, stayed at a resort hotel where they ordered from room service a plate with about eight varieties of cheese.

Sandvick had stopped drinking alcohol and coffee when she learned she was pregnant, but she didn't hesitate about reaching for cheese.

"It was delicious," she recalls.

That was on Friday Feb. 8, five days before the Canadian Food Inspection Agency warned consumers not to eat B.C.-made Abbott's Choice cheese products because they may be contaminated with a dangerous bacteria that causes listeriosis, an infection of the blood that can be deadly.

Sandvick, a 30-year-old Seattle resident with a sales job at a Internet technology company, was one of two women who ate the cheese and lost the babies they were carrying.

Sandvick's lawyer, Bruce Clark, said he expects a civil suit to be filed in B.C. by next week. The suit will name the Abbott Cheese Company and the Aerie Resort north of Victoria, he said.

Sandvick said Wednesday in an interview that she tasted just a little of three or four different types of cheeses.

"The next day, maybe 18 hours later, I started having flu symptoms: fever, headache, vomiting and diarrhea."

Sandvick phoned her doctor in Seattle, because she was pregnant and worried about the fever. She took Tylenol, but stayed in the hotel bed until they took the seaplane home to Seattle Feb. 10.

Once at home, the symptoms seemed to recede. But her fever came back one week later, as well as body aches and severe headaches.

"After a few days of fevers like that, I could barely walk," she said.

Finally, on Feb. 22, she went to a family physician who examined her for just a few minutes before sending her to a hospital emergency ward in the same building. Doctors ran blood and liver tests, speculating she might have meningitis or hepatitis.

"Once in hospital I actually got sicker," she said. "They couldn't give me any more Tylenol, so my fever rose to over 104 degrees Fahrenheit. It was miserable. I was in the hospital all night with a fever that wouldn't budge, and they still weren't sure what it was because the lab work [on her blood] hadn't been done."

Early the next morning, she had a lot of bleeding, severe cramping and pain. She had suffered a miscarriage. And later the same day, doctors had a diagnosis: listeriosis.

Sandvick had to have a spinal tap to ensure the infection wasn't in her spinal column, as well as X-rays and ultrasounds. She spent the next five days in hospital getting medicated and treated.

"It's amazing what it does to your body," she said. "Even walking six feet to the bathroom was a feat. Every time I sat or stood up, I would get a severe, severe headache."

To date, a total of 21 cases linked to Abbott's cheese have been reported to public health officials. But earlier this month, the Centre for Disease Control warned the outbreak is just past its half-way point, and that cases can continue to occur into early April. People can get ill as long as 70 days after eating the cheese, although half of all illnesses occur in the first three weeks after ingestion.

Sandvick spent five days in hospital and another 10 days at home, hooked up to an intravenous drip bag. And the detective work began, because doctors didn't yet know how she came in contact with the potentially lethal bug. They asked her if she had eaten any soft cheeses, and she remembered eating the cheeses at the Victoria resort. Then the Seattle public health department found out about the recall of Abbott's Choice cheeses in Canada. Her fiancee, a lawyer, then called the resort and confirmed that Abbott's Choice cheeses were served there on the weekend of their visit.

Sandvick -- who only returned to work March 13 -- said she's lost thousands of dollars in wages. The insurance company hasn't yet given her a final bill for her medical treatments and the five days spent in hospital, but she expects that bill to be in the thousands, too.

"We're just glad I survived," Sandvick said. "The whole thing was so painful, especially the miscarriage. We were so excited about being pregnant, looking forward to being parents."

Coincidentally, she saw her first ultrasound image of the foetus on the morning she and her fiancee flew to Victoria.

"The doctor said I was healthy, the baby looked perfect and everything was good," Sandvick said.

"That was kind of hard. Now, we just pick up and move on."

Hillary Abbott of the Abbott Cheese Company said production hasn't resumed at the Cowichan Bay plant.

"We're not going to contemplate a business start up until we're satisfied the [listeriosis] cases have come to a conclusion," Abbott said. "The health of customers comes first, then we'll worry about the health of the business."

Like the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, Abbott is worried that others may get sick.

"I'm still concerned that some people may not have heard the story," he said. "Hopefully, they haven't got product in their fridge or freezer that they might unwittingly consume. Hopefully, people have heard the news and are discarding or returning the product."

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control, a research and teaching facility affiliated with the University of B.C., has linked most of the illnesses to the Abbott-made camembert cheese sold or given away at the Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver during the Feb. 1-3 weekend.

Authorities are still investigating what caused the cheese to become contaminated with listeria bacteria. Listeria is commonly found in raw milk, but the centre says the milk used at Abbott was pasteurized and no problems with the pasteurization process have been found.

Food contaminated with the bacteria may not look or smell spoiled.

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