What happened to Kevin is tragic. Unfortunately, he is not alone. Each year in the United States, thousands of Americans suffer and die from preventable foodborne illness. Since Kevin’s death, our family has been dedicated to preventing serious foodborne illness. We do not want another family to have to suffer as our family did. - Barbara Kowalcyk, Kevin's mother
Some people come into our lives,
Leave footprints on our hearts,
And we are never, ever the same.
Kevin – our second child, our first son – came into our lives early in the morning on December 10, 1998 and immediately touched our hearts. Within hours, Kevin was in intensive care, struggling to breathe and maintain his temperature. Kevin quickly showed his determination to live and recovered within two days, leaving doctors perplexed as what has caused his difficulties.
Kevin quickly began to grow and his wonderful little personality began to emerge. He was clearly very bright – spending hours studying the shapes around him and trying to mimic everything his older sister, Megan could do. Kevin had a sensitive side as well and was very in tune to the feelings and moods of those around him. I quickly fell in love with him.
On Kevin’s first birthday, the moving truck arrived to pack up our Newark, Delaware home. We celebrated Kevin’s birthday in a local restaurant with a single candle and a cupcake but he didn’t care. Laid back like his dad, Kevin took it – and the move to Wisconsin – all in stride.
By the summer of 2001, we had settled into our new life in Mount Horeb – a small town 20 miles southwest of Madison. Mike was working at Lands’ End as an economist and I was working at UW-Madison as a biostatistician. Megan was now 5 and ready for Kindergarten. Kevin was in the “terrible twos,” frustrated that he couldn’t do everything Megan could. Even so, I had difficulty getting mad at him – he was just too cute!
In July, we headed off on our much anticipated family vacation, which took us from New Jersey to Maine. We saw so many friends and relatives and visited Plymouth Rock, Acadia National Park, the Baseball Hall of Fame and Niagra Falls. It was by far the best family vacation we had ever been on – and if we had known what was in store for us, we would have never come home.
On Tuesday, July 31, 2001, two weeks after we returned home, Kevin awoke with diarrhea and a mild fever. On the evening of August 1st, we took him to the emergency room for bloody diarrhea but were sent home. By the next morning, Kevin was much sicker and was hospitalized for dehydration and bloody stools. Later, that afternoon, we were given the diagnosis: E.coli O157:H7. On August 3rd, Kevin’s kidneys started failing. He had developed the dreaded HUS. Late that night he was transferred to the Pediatric ICU at the University of Wisconsin’s Children’s Hospital. Mike and I spent the next eight days living in that hospital – watching our beautiful son slip away from us.
On that first Saturday in the PICU, Kevin received his first dialysis - a three-hour procedure during which he needed to keep still. That’s a tall order for any toddler, so my husband, the nurse and two of our friends held his arms and legs while they talked and sang songs to reassure him for the entire treatment. Kevin spent the rest of that day and the next two crawling around a crib in agony. He threw up black bile. He became drawn and his eyes were sunken. He looked like a malnourished third world child. And he smelled – a horrible and overwhelming smell – a smell you could never forget. During those three long days, Kevin begged us to give him water or juice, but the doctors said it would only make him worse. He repeatedly asked to swim in his turtle – a pool we used at home. Kevin finally convinced us to give him a sponge bath and, as soon as the washcloth came near his mouth, he grabbed it, bit down on it and sucked the water out of it. It broke our hearts.
On Tuesday, August 7th, Kevin was placed on a ventilator and continuous dialysis. In hopes of preventing Kevin from remembering this ordeal, doctors heavily sedated him. As the medication wore off, Kevin would try to pull the tubes out so braces were put on his arms. His body began to swell. Doctors inserted tubes to drain fluid off both of his lungs. By the end of the week, he was receiving more medications than we could count to stabilize his blood pressure and heart rate. He had received eight units of blood. A special bed was ordered to help alleviate some of his pain, but throughout it all the hospital staff remained optimistic. They said that this was typically the way HUS/E.coli kids got through the illness. But for Kevin, all of this was not enough and finally on August 11th at 8:20 pm after being resuscitated twice - as doctors were attempting to put him on a heart-lung machine – our beloved Kevin died. He was only 2 years, 8 months and 1 day old. The autopsy later showed that both Kevin’s large and small intestines had died – a condition that is 100% fatal.
In the days and weeks after Kevin’s death, we were plagued by questions. How could Kevin have gone from being perfectly healthy to being dead in just 12 days? And more importantly, how did Kevin get E. coli in the first place? Our family – and our attorney - spent three years trying to find the answers to these questions. What we learned – and the difficulties we encountered – shocked us.
Since E. coli O157:H7 is a reportable infectious disease, our county public health department was notified as soon as Kevin was diagnosed. While Kevin laid in intensive care, health department officials interviewed my husband and I for an hour and a half. They asked us, along with our then five year old, to provide them with stool samples so they could determine if anyone else in the family had contracted E. coli. After we provided our samples, they said they would investigate our case and get back to us. We never heard from them.
Finally, on September 10, 2001, my mother – who was in visiting – asked me if she could follow up with the public health department. We were floored when the head of the health department informed her that my husband and daughter had also tested positive for E.coli O157:H7. Their only symptom was one loose bowel movement. Had Kevin not been sick, we wouldn’t have even given it a second thought.
You would think that - with three cases of E.coli O157:H7 - our local and state health departments would have launched a thorough investigation but they didn’t. Even though reporting regulations stipulate that three cases constitute an outbreak, we were told that Kevin was an isolated case. How is this possible? Well, it seems that the health department regarded Kevin as the original case and my daughter and husband as contracting their E.coli from him. Plus, according to the health department, there was a 95% chance that they wouldn’t find the source of Kevin’s illness.
Desperate for answers, my husband and I looked for help and we found a lawyer who specializes in foodborne illnesses. Given that Kevin had eaten three hamburgers in the week prior to his illness, our lawyer suspected a meat contamination. In November, under the Freedom of Information Act, we requested the DNA fingerprints from the USDA for all meat recalls in 2001. It took several threatened lawsuits and 6 months for us to receive all the information.
In 2003, after receiving and reviewing all the documents, we discovered that the PFGE pattern (or DNA) of Kevin’s E. coli matched that of a meat recall in August 2001. The recalled meat had been produced by a subsidiary of one of America’s largest agribusinesses. In July 2000 – one year before Kevin’s illness - this company failed USDA’s Salmonella test for the second time. This is significant because, under the new HACCP food inspection system, failing a Salmonella test is an indicator that other foodborne pathogens are more likely to be present and, according to USDA’s HACCP regulations, plants that fail the Salmonella test three times are supposed to be shut down.
Not surprisingly, in December 2000, this same company had a positive random E.coli test and 1.1 million pounds of ground beef were recalled. After the recall, USDA performed another random E. coli O157:H7 test, which was negative, but then, in July 2001, an outbreak in northern Illinois and Chicago was traced back to the same offending plant. As a result, USDA performed a non-random test for E. coli O157:H7 on August 2, 2001 and this test came back positive. Finally, on August 27, 2001 – after 25 days of USDA-industry negotiations – the plant recalled 530,000 pounds of ground beef. The PFGE pattern (or DNA) for Kevin’s E. coli matched the PFGE pattern of the recalled meat.
Unfortunately, having a PFGE match is NOT sufficient evidence to show that a producer is responsible for a particular illness. We needed to show that Kevin consumed the contaminated meat. We knew that Kevin had eaten three hamburgers in the week before his illness. Two of these three hamburgers were made from meat purchased at the same retailer. We needed to determine if the retailers had received their meat from the producer that had issued the recall, and to do that, we needed to look at the distribution records. Again, we were in for a shock. The USDA considers those records to be proprietary and would not give them to us, so we were forced to ask the meat producer to provide us with their records. The producer was not able to find their records and therefore could not prove or disprove if the suppliers/retailers had received their meat. We then shifted our approach and asked the retailer to provide their records; however, there is no law requiring them to do so and they refused. Finally, in July 2004, we felt we had no choice but to file a lawsuit so that we could subpoena the producer’s and the retailers’ records. We did not do this lightly; we felt we owed it to our son – and our surviving children – to find out what had happened to Kevin.
In the end, we were not able to prove conclusively that the recalled meat was what caused Kevin’s illness and dropped our lawsuit. It is hard knowing that those responsible for producing the defective product that killed our child will not be held accountable. Some say we were just interested in the money. No, we simply wanted to know what happened to our child and prevent it from happening to others because, in the end, accountability fosters responsibility.
What happened to our son, Kevin is tragic. Unfortunately, he is not alone. Each year in the United States, thousands of Americans suffer and die from preventable foodborne illness. Since Kevin’s death, our family has been dedicated to preventing serious foodborne illness. We do not want another family to have to suffer as our family did.
- Barbara Kowalcyk
THE CENTER FOR FOODBORNE ILLNESS RESEARCH & PREVENTION | firstname.lastname@example.org