Everything you’re supposed to do

As soon-to-be new parents, my wife and I knew almost nothing. But we knew enough to know that. So we asked family members, doctors, nurses, just about anyone, “What are we supposed to do?”

And we listened. We listened to obstetricians, read books and magazines, and sought advice from his future grandparents about everything we could think of. What will happen during childbirth? How can the house be safer? How will we know when he’s sick? What should he eat when it comes time for solids? When is that?

As I write, Max, almost 2-and-half now, is no doubt asleep a few hundred yards away at the Bombeck Family Learning Center. He’s had his center lunch and is napping under the quilt his grandmother sewed for his second birthday. At home, we’ve taught him to stay out of the street, to treat the dog respectfully, not to eat food he drops. And we prepare his food carefully, cutting large pieces of fruit into smaller ones, cooking meat thoroughly, doing everything a parent is supposed to do.

On the phone yesterday from Wisconsin, Barbara Buck Kowalcyk ’91 put this age well when she told me, “I fell madly in love with my kids when they were 2.” In the summer of 2001, Barb’s son Kevin was 2-and-a-half. This past summer, he was still 2-and-a-half. Kevin will always be 2-and-a-half. And she’s still madly in love with him.

On Sept. 10, 2001, Barb’s family learned from her county’s health officials that husband Mike ’90 and Kevin’s older sister Megan, then 5, had been infected with E. coli O157:H7. Samples had been taken from the family about five weeks earlier while Kevin was in a Madison-area hospital suffering with the same infection, “crawling around the crib in agony,” says Barb.

In the hospital, they did what the doctors told them to do. Despite his begging, they withheld water or juice for days to aid his treatment. After three days they relented on his pleas for a sponge bath. “As soon as the washcloth came near his mouth,” she says, “he grabbed it, bit down on it, and sucked the water out of it. It broke our hearts.”

In the last eight days I’ve taken Max to the zoo to visit the penguins. We raked too many autumn leaves to count. We went to a minor league hockey game. His grandparents visited. I’ve washed his favorite new cup dozens of times since the penguins. I’ve read him If You Give a Mouse a Cookie dozens of times. One can do a lot in eight days.

Kevin slipped away from his family slowly over eight days. Through sedation, dialysis, tubes in his lungs, his doctors tried to keep his body alive to fight HUS, a syndrome that sometimes develops when dying E. coli O157:H7 cells release poisons. Still, when Kevin’s large and small intestines failed and he died, his family felt “like he had been hit by an invisible truck.”

Barb and Mike wanted answers. They learned that the E. coli that infected Mike and Megan and killed Kevin probably came from contaminated meat, perhaps from ground beef. Barb insists that she never fed her family undercooked meat, always cleaned surfaces carefully and did all the things consumers are told to do to handle meat safely.

What she learned only after Kevin’s death was that if there is E. coli in ground beef, it has likely come into contact with cow manure. Cow manure can be introduced into meat any number of ways — by the knife that cuts the carcass or from the digestive track spilling its contents during removal. A slaughterhouse can process 400 cows an hour; the meat from one tainted cow can contaminate tens of thousands of hamburgers. Food-borne illnesses caused by E. coli, salmonella and other pathogens take 5,000 lives in the United States a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Some dispute the number. Rosemary Mucklow of the National Meat Association, quoted in the May 13 issue of Food Chemical News, a publication for food producers, asked to know “where the bodies are buried.” Kevin wears a white ring bearer’s suit in his grave. Barb sent Mucklow its picture and address. It’s what a mother does.

The USDA cannot close plants that consistently fail tests for certain potentially lethal pathogens. A bill in Congressional subcommittee called the Meat and Poultry Reduction and Enforcement Act of 2002, better known as Kevin’s Law, authorizes the USDA to set and enforce tough limits on food-borne pathogens, allowing it to shut down plants that repeatedly test positive for salmonella, E. coli O157:H7 and other pathogens. Congressional co-sponsors have been difficult to recruit.

Night comes early in the late autumn. It’s time for me to walk down in the twilight to pick up Max, put his coat on and take him home. I’ll get a slip of paper telling me how long he napped, what songs he learned. I’ll read what he ate at snack time and lunchtime, and I’ll wonder if we’re doing everything we’re supposed to do. I’ll wonder too if the people producing his food and assuring its safety are doing what they’re supposed to do.

(Essay by author; reprinted from University of Dayton Quarterly, Winter 2002-03; Barb has gone on to get a doctorate in environmental health at University of Cincinnati (Go Bearcats!) and establish the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention at N.C. State University.)

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