In early May 2009, Abby Fenstermaker visited her grandfather at a Cleveland rehabilitation center where he was being cared for because of an E. coli infection. He’d eaten tainted beef about three weeks earlier at a veteran’s hall, the Ohio Department of Health determined. While Abby’s mother, Nicole, plugged in a small television she’d brought to his room, the 7-year-old girl brushed her grandfather’s cheek with a soft kiss.
That kiss and other physical contact likely transferred E. coli from 72-year-old John Strike to his granddaughter, says Craig Hedberg, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, who reviewed the case for the family. The CDC says E. coli can be spread by touching an ill person who hasn’t washed properly, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its November issue.
Nicole, a pharmacy technician, didn’t know that food poisoning could be contagious, so she wasn’t worried on May 7, 2009, when her first-grader complained of a stomachache. A few days later, the chatty girl who loved reading and playing with the family dog, Isis, a friendly black chow, didn’t want to get off the couch.
Nicole kept carrying her to the bathroom. Abby had 15 watery bowel movements. The girl apologized to her mom. She said she felt sorry because it was Mother’s Day.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, along with state and local health agencies, linked the Ohio illnesses to Valley Meats LLC, in Coal Valley, Illinois. The company recalled 95,898 pounds of beef on May 21, 2009.
Valley Meats owner Charles Palmer says the company received a 95.5-out-of-100 safety rating from auditor NSF Cook & Thurber in 2009. Palmer says he’s not sure his company caused the outbreak, adding that it is stepping up meat safety practices to reduce the chance of E. coli to near zero.
About two weeks before the recall, on May 11, 2009, Abby kept leaving her bed to go to the bathroom with diarrhea. Nicole, 37, pulled back the covers of her daughter’s bed that day.
“There was a huge stain of blood on the bed,” she says.
The family rushed Abby to Lakewood Hospital, where doctors and nurses inserted IVs and gave her morphine for pain. Doctors moved her to the Cleveland Clinic and intensive care. A private room, bathed in sunlight from two small windows, became Abby’s new home.
“Mom, I’m thirsty,” Abby said. Nicole raised a damp blue sponge to Abby’s lips. “Mom, can we watch my shows?” Abby asked about the TV.
She never spoke again. She died on May 17, 2009, following a massive stroke, 10 days after getting sick from a hamburger she’d never even eaten.
Editors: Jonathan Neumann, Gail Roche