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Sickened by E. Coli Tainted Burger, Woman Out of Coma After 9 Weeks

Jan 2, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

An E. coli victim is finally out of a medically induced coma.  Sharon Smith remains hospitalized after eating a tainted Sam’s Club hamburger in September and becoming ill with E. coli poisoning.  Smith has been at Saint Mary’s Hospital in Rochester and, around Thanksgiving, doctors told Smith’s family they could do no more for her.  Five days after falling ill, Stephanie was hospitalized with hemolytic uremic syndrome—a severe, life-threatening complication of E. coli that occurs when E. coli toxins enter the bloodstream—and was placed in medically induced coma when she began having seizures. 

Nine weeks after being placed in a coma, just before the holidays, Smith regained consciousness, although doctors report that Stephanie remains critical.  Smith is moving her fingers and able to wink, but because she has been unconscious for so long, doctors are unsure if she'll make a full recovery.  Attempts to lower the coma-inducing drugs have resulted in more seizures and she requires a respirator to breathe, therefore, she is unable to speak because of the breathing tube on which she relies.  It remains unknown as to when the tube can be removed.  Stephanie’s kidneys have begun functioning and she no longer requires dialysis; however, her tongue has swelled and doctors have to prop her mouth open and have placed an oxygen mask on her.

E. coli 0157:H7—Escherichia coli 0157:H7—is one of hundreds of E. coli strains, the vast majority of which are harmless.  Strain 0157:H7 is quite virulent and produces a powerful toxin that can cause severe illness and even death and is the leading cause of food and waterborne illness in the U.S.  Routinely found on cattle farms and in the intestines of healthy livestock, E. coli outbreaks occur when meat becomes tainted during slaughter, organisms contaminate the grounding process, and tainted meat is released and consumed by the public.  According to Center of Disease Control (CDC) estimates, there are over 70,000 cases of infection yearly with 2,100 hospitalized and 61 fatalities as a direct result of E. coli infections and its complications.  A recent study estimated the annual cost of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses to be $405 million (in 2003 dollars), including $370 million for premature deaths, $30 million for medical care, and $5 million for lost productivity.  It has been estimated that for every laboratory-confirmed E. coli O157:H7 infection, another four-to-eight symptomatic cases are missed.

In 2007, meat producers were forced to recall over 33.3 million pounds of beef products, including the 21.7 million pound recall that propelled New Jersey-based Topps Foods into bankruptcy.  In June, United Food Group was forced to recall 5.7 million pounds of E. coli-laced ground beef.  E. coli also forced the recall of 3.3 million pounds of Totino’s and Jeno’s frozen meat pizza and, in two separate recalls, Cargill had to recall over 1.9 million pounds of contaminated beef.  Most of the big recalls of 2007 remain on the active case list of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).


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