The 2000 movie called “The Perfect Storm” loosely chronicled the destruction of an Atlantic nor’easter that formed due to the random convergence of several destructive weather patterns. Twelve people died in the storm, including six sword fishermen aboard the Andrea Gail (captained by George Clooney’s in the movie). Today is September 14, 2009, marking three years since the convergence of another set of tragic circumstances, ending in hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, many lives lost, and many more lives changed forever:  the 2006 Spinach E. coli outbreak.

Though there were no rough-hewn sword fishermen dying in the Grand Banks, perhaps more than any other outbreak of foodborne disease that we have seen, the spinach outbreak in September 2006 really was the perfect storm. The vehicle, Dole baby spinach, was a nationally-distributed, high-volume product eaten raw by people in every age group, including the young and the old. Contamination on the product was widespread, as is apparent from the severity and number of illnesses caused. And the strains of shiga-toxin producing E. coli involved, again as judged by the severity and number of illnesses caused, were simply more virulent than the strains we typically see.

But just like George Clooney’s movie, the spinach outbreak is truly memorable because of the suffering it caused. Ultimately, the outbreak cost the leafy greens industry over $175 million, maybe more, ruining a brand name; and more importantly, over 200 people were sickened, 102 were hospitalized, and at least thirty-one people developed HUS, five of whom died. Among the five who passed away were Betty Howard, Ruby Trautz, and June Dunning. All three were beloved mothers and grandmothers, and all three died undeservedly shameful, protracted deaths.

The deaths of these three women have been described often enough, however. So it is thus in tribute to Betty, Ruby, and June, and their families, on this third anniversary of the spinach outbreak, that we remind everybody just briefly about these wonderful ladies’ lives.

Betty Howard was born on September 14, 1923 in Sharon Springs, Kansas. She graduated high school in Salina, Kansas in 1941. Like others of the GI Generation, during World War II Betty did her part by working in a gunpowder plant in Oklahoma. After the war, she moved to Yakima, Washington, where she met John W. Howard. The striking young couple married on February 26, 1947.

John and Betty Howard raised four sons: Kim, Paul, Brian, and Darryl. Kim, the Howard’s first son, died in 1998. Paul, Brian, and Darryl are independent, successful men with families of their own. And to a man, each reflects on his childhood, and his mother more specifically, as idyllic in both appearance and reality.

The Howard boys’ mother left an indelible impression on each from day one, most significantly the way in which she lived and conducted her life. Darryl Howard eulogized his mother on February 1, 2007. He stated:

As I thought back this morning, it reminded me of the movie Second Hand Lions.

Two uncles raise a son of a relative. They tell him of their unbelievable adventures. Adventures in the Foreign Legion, tales of saving a girl, and wittingly getting a reward of gold offered for their own heads from a Saudi Prince.

In the end after the two 90-year old uncles pass away by flying their bi-plane into a barn, the boy returns to the farm and this helicopter lands. There is the son of the Saudi Prince with his son. They had heard of the uncles’ passing. The Prince looks over at a large yacht in a small pond and comments: “I see they spent my father’s money well.” Hearing this, the Prince’s son exclaims “So the stories grandfather told of the men are true, they really lived.” To which the boy who the uncles raised, now a man, says: “Yeah, they really lived, boy how they lived.”

My mom and dad really lived.

June Dunning was born on June 20, 1920 in Catford, England. She met her future husband, Arthur Gordon Dunning, a US citizen born to British parents, some years later while working in London. Arthur was then working at Scotland Yard. June and Arthur married in Sussex, England on April 24, 1943.

Arthur thereafter joined the U.S. Army, and he and June spent the majority of the next 20 years living in and around Europe. Their army life resulted in frequent moves, and June held numerous jobs over the years at various Army Base stores. They were eventually transferred to Fort Ritchie, Maryland, where Arthur retired. June and Arthur moved to Hagerstown, Maryland in the mid seventies.

For the last seven years of her life, June lived in Hagerstown, Maryland with her daughter, Corinne Swartz, and her son-in-law, Warren Swartz. Corinne recalls her mother as “a proper British lady that loved her tea, meticulously cared for her flowers and plants and adored our Yorkshire Terrier ”Roxie” whom she walked almost every day until the day she became ill. Neighbors often commented on how they enjoyed watching her walk around the neighborhood with the Yorkie by her side."

June remained independent to the last. She enjoyed heading into town on her own. In fact, Corinne and Warren purchased their home at its location in part due to its proximity to a Hagerstown bus stop. This allowed June to pack a bag for the day, scurry to the bus stop, make a transfer in the downtown square and then ride a second bus to the Mall for a day of shopping, or for an evening of Bingo.
“She never complained about anything,” Corinne recalls, “unless it was raining. The rain always made her mad because she would probably not go out that day. She was an avid shopper. I’m sure the department stores at the Mall have felt the effects of the sudden lack of sales. Finding bargains was a favorite past-time of hers. She often came home after riding the bus from the mall with her arms full of the day’s ‘good buys’.”

Ruby LaFon Trautz was born in the back seat of a car on February 2, 1925 in Manzanar, California. She was the second of four girls born to working class parents, Maude and Paul LaFon. Typical of the era, Maude was a homemaker and Paul, Ruby’s much-beloved father, worked construction.

Ruby and her sisters lived their formative years in a home on Settle Avenue in San Jose, California. The girls sprouted from their humble origins to become cultured, ambitious young women. The personal history of each is remarkable; and Ruby’s, in particular, shows an early bent toward the vibrant and confident persona that she carried throughout her life.

Characteristically, Ruby was not enamored with many of the “social constraints” extant during her adolescent and early adult years. She was, and so remained until the day she died, determined to shape her own life. Thus, she was consistently employed from her adolescent years, through high school, and, after a respite of fifteen years to care for her two girls, consistently until retirement at age 65. Most of her early jobs were military in some fashion, or related to the war effort at least, and she quickly found her calling in the nursing field.

Ruby began training for her nursing career at Santa Clara County Hospital in 1943. She would remain there until 1946, when she transferred to a program at Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles, where she worked in obstetrics and orthopedics. The picture below is of Ruby shortly after graduation from nursing school. Afterward, she returned to Santa Clara County Hospital, where she worked in surgery until commissioned as a 1st Lieutenant in the Air Force in 1950.

It was in her capacity as an Air Force Lieutenant that Ruby served as a flight nurse aboard planes flying wounded Korean War soldiers from base to base—a role that Ruby considered the single-most important of her distinguished medical career. By chance, or perhaps provenance, Ruby’s thoughts about the time she spent in that critical role are memorialized. Students from Conestoga School District in Murray, Nebraska recorded them in an interview several years ago about female war veterans:

Ruby’s job was to help the wounded [] soldiers get on the planes and to help medically while they were transported back to a hospital closest to their homes to continue their medical care or to die. The soldiers would come in on Navy planes to Travis AFB, CA and the nurses would fly on Navy or Air Force planes to get them closer to homes.

The nurses were very much in charge once the patients were on the plane. . . . Nurses essentially had power over the pilots because they could request that the pilots find an airfield to land at anytime if they felt a patient needed to be at a hospital or with a doctor. She requested a plane be taken down to Ft. Knox, KY.

Ruby would often sign in at 3 a.m. and take off at 7 a.m. Her days were typically 12-14 hours. They would land in 7-8 places a day. Sometimes nurses were left at the last stop and it might take 2-3 days to hitch a ride on another plane home. . . .

I asked Ruby what the injury types were. She said it was very sad, they were young kids. They usually had bad injuries like amputations, gun shot wounds, and schizophrenia caused by the war.

Many who knew Ruby Trautz would say that she remained vibrant until she was sickened in the spinach outbreak. Confident, independent, and informed are other adjectives not unfamiliar to Ruby’s description—some might even say feisty. To a person, however, no matter the adjective used, everybody who knew Ruby Trautz agrees that, even at age 81, she remained the dominant force in her own life. As Polly Costello, one of Ruby’s two daughters stated, “my mom was living her life, not waiting for death.”

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Photo of Drew Falkenstein Drew Falkenstein

Drew Falkenstein joined Marler Clark in January, 2004 and has concentrated his practice in representing victims of foodborne illness. He has litigated nationwide against some of the biggest food corporations in the world, including Dole, Kellogg’s, and McDonald’s.  He has worked on landmark…

Drew Falkenstein joined Marler Clark in January, 2004 and has concentrated his practice in representing victims of foodborne illness. He has litigated nationwide against some of the biggest food corporations in the world, including Dole, Kellogg’s, and McDonald’s.  He has worked on landmark cases that have helped shape food safety policy, HACCP protocol, and consumer rights, such as the E. coli outbreak in fresh spinach in 2006 and the 2008 Peanut Corporation of America outbreak of Salmonella. A frequent speaker for the not-for-profit organization Outbreak, Inc, Mr. Falkenstein travels the country to address public and environmental health organizations as well as food safety meetings and annual educational conferences.  He speaks on the intersection of law and public health, and addresses companies on how to prevent food borne illness outbreaks.