This is an excerpt from "Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. coli Outbreak That Changed The Way Americans Eat," by Jeff Benedict.
It was evening by the time forty-four-year-old Suzanne Kiner pulled into the parking lot at Woodinville Pediatrics, twenty miles from Seattle. Her nine-year-old daughter, Brianne, felt too weak to walk. Topping 250 pounds and with glasses and short wavy hair, Suzanne lifted her sixty-five-pound daughter from the backseat and carried her inside. Brianne had missed the previous day of school with a low-grade fever and stomach ache. Besides liquids, all Suzanne could get in her was raspberry popsicles. Then the diarrhea had started, along with the cramps that reduced Brianne to tears.
As soon as they got inside the clinic, Suzanne hustled Brianne to the bathroom. Once she got her situated on the toilet, Suzanne slipped a cup under Brianne's bottom to collect a urine sample. When she pulled the cup from underneath her daughter, the urine was blood red. So was Suzanne's hand.
"What is that, Mommy?"
"It's the raspberry popsicle you had earlier today," Suzanne said, trying not to panic.
Behind the thick lenses on her glasses, Brianne's eyes were full of fear.
Quickly patting her daughter dry and wiping her own arm with antiseptic, Suzanne stepped into the hallway with the cup of bloody urine in her hand. She held it above her head when she spotted the pediatrician. His eyes widened and he hustled toward her.
By the time paramedics removed Brianne Kiner from the ambulance and wheeled her into the ER at Children's Hospital, Suzanne Kiner was doing all she could to hold herself together. Brianne was writhing in pain, and the diarrhea just kept coming. So did the blood.
The ER was packed, chaotic, and loud. Suzanne's forty-five-year-old husband, Rex, a quiet, unassuming electrical engineer, began filling out paperwork. Suzanne stayed with Brianne as she was wheeled into a private room and her vital signs were taken. Her blood pressure was way up: dehydration had set in. Repeated attempts to get an IV line into a vein in Brianne's arm failed. The more the medic poked, the more Brianne shrieked in pain. Finally a senior nurse got the line in. More doctors and nurses kept coming into the room. And more and more wires and cords were running between Brianne and nearby monitoring devices.
Eventually, an epidemiologist wearing a medical overcoat and carrying a clipboard approached Suzanne with some questions, starting with where and what Brianne had eaten lately.
Hardly anything, Suzanne explained. Brianne had basically been on a liquid diet for the past four days.
Before that was hard for Suzanne to remember. Her daughter was screaming in agony, making it hard to focus on what had been cooked for dinner five days earlier. The epidemiologist said she was less interested in what Suzanne had cooked than in whether Brianne had eaten at any restaurants lately.
That was an easier question. Jack in the Box, Suzanne told her.
The epidemiologist asked if she was sure about that.
Suzanne was sure. They hardly ever ate out. But twice in the past week and a half Brianne had eaten out. And both times Jack in the Box was the place.
The epidemiologist asked if Suzanne knew what Brianne had eaten.
That was easy, too: a kid-size burger, french fries, and a milk shake. Same meal both times.
The epidemiologist noted all of this on a form and asked, "Are you sure Brianne didn't eat hamburgers anywhere else, such as McDonald's or Wendy's?"
Suzanne was sure.
By this point, Rex had entered the room and he noticed how the epidemiologist's eyes lit up when Suzanne mentioned hamburgers at Jack in the Box. Guilt swept over him. Rex had been raised on a beef cattle farm in Almira, Washington, where he'd seen cows get sick with diarrhea and then pass the illness on to the calves through the feeding process. Sometimes the calves died as a result. It was why his father had always stressed the motto "One hamburger, one cow, shorthand for slaughtering and processing one cow at a time." Rex rarely ate a hamburger after moving away from his father's farm, due to risks associated with large industrial meat-processing facilities. Yet he had let Brianne do it.
Suzanne Kiner was slumped over a chair next to Brianne's bed, fighting back the urge to nod off. Any minute, she kept thinking, Brianne might open her eyes.
Her husband, Rex, had retreated to an ICU waiting room for parents. It was hard to find a seat in there. The place was filled with people whose children were suffering from HUS. But Rex was more overwhelmed by the scene in Brianne's room than this one. There were tubes and cords and wires running in and out of her body. His little girl was in a coma after eating a hamburger. It was just too much to process.
Suzanne had the opposite reaction. She avoided the waiting room for parents. She had tried lying down in there on the first night, but all she did was sweat on the horribly uncomfortable vinyl furniture. Meantime, parents had started calling that room the Death Room. Everyone in there had a child in critical condition. Suzanne got amped up just thinking about the place. Besides, there was no way she was leaving Brianne's bedside. Since arriving at the hospital three days earlier, Suzanne hadn't been home once to freshen up or change clothes. She was determined to go through her daughter's illness with her.
Suddenly a nurse entered the room and motioned for Suzanne to step out into the hallway. She had some news: Brianne was about to get a roommate — a little boy badly in need of kidney dialysis who had just been rushed to Children's from a hospital in Tacoma.
Already an emotional wreck, Suzanne cupped her mouth when she first spotted little Michael. His innocence brought tears to her eyes. He looks like a little angel, she thought to herself.
Then she looked at Brianne, unable to fight off a nagging thought, Michael will live and Brianne will not. Brianne just looked so much worse. It was hard not to compare.
But Michael was in critical condition, too. The E. coli had made a frontal attack on his intestines. Doctors feared that his underdeveloped immune system would succumb.
Once the doctors finally left the room, Suzanne met Michael's parents.
Young and blue-collar, the couple struggled to keep their emotions in check. "My name is Diana."
"I'm Suzanne Kiner."
"Where did your child eat?" Diana asked.
"Jack in the Box," Suzanne said.
Diana's lips came together tightly as she nodded her head up and down. Michael had eaten there, too.
Just like that, an instant bond had been formed between two mothers with dying children.