For anybody who cares at all about the cantaloupe Listeria outbreak–victims, industry, regulators, and ordinary folks–Michael Booth’s article today in the Denver Post deserves a wide audience. He profiles the illness of our client Mike Hauser, one of 39 confirmed outbreak cases in the State of Colorado. The article is reproduced here in full:
Penny Hauser has one hope left as she adjusts the feeding drip and checks for bedsores on her husband and helpmate, Mike.
She has set aside visions of Mike, 68, returning soon to his favorite golf courses.
She’s archived the memories of grandpa Mike bucking the grandchildren off his strong back in living-room horseplay.
And she’s stopped fighting the family’s do-not-resuscitate meetings, which come with near-weekly regularity as Mike lies unresponsive at a Select Medical acute-care center in Denver.
Penny’s last hope is for Mike to become lucid long enough for her to utter one sentence.
“I just want him to wake up so I can apologize for serving him cantaloupe,” said Penny, tearing up again during a long talk about her husband’s near-fatal case of listeriosis.
The listeria outbreak from Colorado grower Jensen Farms’ cantaloupe has killed 29 people nationwide — eight in Colorado — and caused one miscarriage. Dozens more people, including Mike Hauser, have been irreparably damaged by an especially vicious bacterium.
Listeriosis is deadly in about 20 percent of cases and requires hospitalization in 95 percent, far higher than other food illnesses, said Benjamin Silk of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While the death toll has slowed, with no new CDC reports since Nov. 2, the outbreak traced to Colorado is the most lethal on record at the CDC since 1924.
Those who have buried loved ones struggle to reconcile the tragic results with the mundane cause — an everyday piece of fruit.
The government, food producers and consumer experts, meanwhile, are scrambling to set new rules and guidelines to reassure customers about safety before the next growing season.
And shattered families of the stricken — 139 people were sickened in the outbreak — are still trying to put their lives back together. Herb Stevens Jr., 84, is at home with extra help following weeks in a nursing home after taking ill Aug. 22 in Littleton.
Doctors in multiple states have cracked open medical reference books to treat dozens more victims of the extremely rare illness.
Mike Hauser’s family gathers in various combinations every day at Select Specialty Hospital inside Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver. They come from Penny Hauser’s home base in Monument and from far-flung jobs, grandchild duties and travel demands to hear the latest medical news on Mike and to make the next set of tough choices.
In mid-August, long before the Hausers had ever heard of cantaloupe being a risky fruit, Mike was recovering from multiple myeloma and the accompanying stem-cell treatments.
Hauser, a retired podiatrist, is a Mr. Fixit. He’s legendary in the family for meticulous vacation planning. While taking it easy from the stem-cell transplant, he remodeled a bathroom and scouted a bow-hunting trip.
But he avoided his beloved golf because divots and sand traps kick up pneumonia-causing bacteria for stem-cell patients who have lost immunity.
Penny’s list of do’s and don’ts was long: no blue cheese, no raspberries with bacteria-hiding crevices, wash every piece of lettuce. “I never scrubbed cantaloupe,” she said.
Penny bought a cantaloupe on Aug. 17 at a Sunflower Market in Colorado Springs. She and her daughter, Macaria, who stayed with them to help in Mike’s cancer recovery, felt a bit queasy afterward but thought nothing of it.
Mike suffered splitting headaches beginning Sept. 11. Painkillers didn’t help. He couldn’t hold down food. When his thinking grew muddled, the family rushed him to University Hospital, alarmed that he wasn’t doing his usual back-seat driving.
Macaria picked him up to carry him into the emergency room, and the last conscious act Mike has made since was to reach over her shoulder to push the car door shut.
A chest-heaving seizure terrified everyone, and the Hausers’ world was quickly consumed in a series of spinal taps, brain shunts, intubations and rotations through any intensive-care unit with an extra bed. Daughter Holly Pixler cringed at the massive ventilator obscuring her father’s friendly face and cramming air down his lungs.
Penny, a semi-retired schoolteacher who had been scheduled to start a new assignment on Sept. 12, keeps three fast-filling notebooks of Mike’s drugs, treatment dates and doctor names. Her Sept. 16 entry shows the state health department calling to ask whether Mike had eaten cantaloupe.
Jensen Farms had recalled its entire 2011 melon crop two days before. Eventually DNA from Mike Hauser’s case of listeriosis would match strains swabbed at the farm near Holly.
CAT scans can’t tell the Hausers whether Mike will get many brain functions back.
Twenty doctors and family members crowded into a conference room on Sept. 27 to discuss Mike’s future. If his brain didn’t wake up by the 30-day mark, doctors warned, the family would want to reconsider extraordinary life-saving measures.
But a prognosis for Hauser is hard to come by. Neurologists say they might see only one listeriosis case in a career. The Hausers call it “doctoring in the dark.”
On rare days, they see slight hope. Mike’s eyes have opened, and he has appeared to smile. That’s when Penny and her daughters shut themselves into a tiny hospital bathroom to yell, hug and high-five.
Livid over cause
A burning anger at Jensen Farms and grocery stores partially refuels them when spirits flag. The Hausers have retained Seattle food-illness attorney Bill Marler for a private lawsuit.
“When I found out it was because the farm wasn’t washing things or cleaning the machines, that made me so angry,” said Macaria, her voice shaking. “Something that simple — it’s negligent. It’s ignorant. If they weren’t cleaning the dialysis machines here at the hospital, they wouldn’t stand for it. Why should we stand for it at a food-processing facility?”
Listening to Macaria, Penny Hauser can’t contain herself.
“This is the United States of America, not a Third World country,” she said.
And that’s when she adds her fervent hope for the chance to give Mike a personal apology about the cantaloupe.
At any moment when Penny feels guilty for talking about Mike without talking to him, she leans toward his wide-open eyes and says, “Do you love me?”
No response. “I know you do. And I love you too.”
Penny thinks Mike’s breathing without a machine is a good sign. Doctors want more signs, such as smiling or sticking out a tongue on command, or uttering his wife’s name.
The family agrees that if this had happened to any other of them, Mike would have been the best one to make choices about care and resuscitation orders. Now those things are up to them.
“I’m trying to think about the right thing to do,” Penny Hauser said. “I don’t want to play God.”