FRIDAY, Aug. 16 (HealthDay News) -- As a health reporter, I'd
heard plenty of stories about food contamination and had taken
steps to make sure my family's food was as safe as it could be. If
I saw friends eating undercooked ground beef, I'd gently chide them
about the possible dangers of eating food that wasn't prepared
properly. Friends dubbed me the "food police."
Contracting a foodborne illness was not something you'd expect
would happen to me.
Nonetheless, three days after a barbecue with friends at my
house, I woke up feeling sicker than I'd ever felt.
I had terrible heartburn and abdominal pain. I had cold sweats
and a strange pain in my left arm, along with a feeling that
something was terribly wrong. Then, the diarrhea started. Within an
hour, I'd had more than 10 bowel movements. I couldn't shake an
incredible feeling of dread.
Then I began vomiting, forcefully and repeatedly. I felt myself
quickly becoming disoriented. I managed to make it back to bed and,
before I passed out, mumbled "9-1-1" to my husband.
At the hospital, blood tests showed that my kidneys and liver
had shut down, and I was immediately admitted to the intensive care
I knew I was dying. No one said so, but I could feel it. Later,
my doctor told me that I had only a 15 percent chance of surviving
that first night.
The diagnosis: two disorders caused by an infection with E. coli
-- hemolytic uremic syndrome and thrombotic thrombocytopenic
purpura. In addition to kidney and liver failure, my red blood
cells were now forming small clots and blocking small blood
vessels. This caused bruises to form all over my body. My entire
right arm was black and blue, as was half of my left arm, from
where they tried to take blood from me.
The pain was excruciating. And, because my kidneys weren't
working, I was swollen almost beyond recognition. When they weighed
me in the ICU, I had gained more than 20 pounds in fluid in three
days. My fingers, which were so filled with fluid that they
couldn't bend, felt like they might just pop like a balloon.
My treatment included kidney dialysis and plasmapheresis, a
procedure that removes blood from your body and separates the
plasma from the blood. Then the rest of the blood is mixed with
donated plasma and returned to the body. Though normally a cream
color, the plasma removed from my body was black, apparently
because of all the dead red blood cells. For almost two weeks, I
spent four to eight hours a day hooked up to blood-sucking
machines. I also received blood transfusions.
Eventually, though, the treatments worked. My blood cells
started behaving normally, and my kidneys started functioning
again. After nine days in the ICU and another 10 days in the
hospital, I went home.
Recovery was a long and slow process. It took several months
before most of my blood work came back normal. I saw countless
doctors for lingering problems, which included a painful, reactive
arthritis (a type of arthritis that can develop after a bad
infection) and nerve damage from where the dialysis shunt had been
placed. The arthritis persisted for about a year, but I did not
need long-term kidney dialysis, and my health in time returned to
normal -- though no one can say definitively that I won't have
trouble down the road. I was grateful to have survived.
So how did all this happen to someone who'd been so careful to
make sure that burgers were always well-cooked, with no pink meat.
A doctor who specializes in infectious diseases explained that,
even though the meat was gray and looked cooked, there must have
been an area of the meat that hadn't reached a high enough
temperature to kill the bacteria.
At the time, food safety experts weren't stressing the need to
take the temperature of food to ensure that it's cooked well.
That's changed. So have my precautions.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I now own several well-used food
thermometers. And hamburgers at my house are now always cooked to
160 degrees at the thickest part of the meat.
To read a story on experts' advice on food safety, click
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