In the midst of a massive Salmonella outbreak and egg recall, CNN reporter Elizabeth Landau’s thoughts turned to the human toll that Salmonella infection can have. Ms. Landau spoke with our client, Barb Pruitt, who, at age 41, had several feet of her small intestine surgically removed as a result of a severe salmonella infection.
The culprit food in Barb’s case? Lettuce. Yet another FDA-regulated product.
For most people, salmonella can be nasty for a few days or maybe a week, but then it’s gone. Specific treatment isn’t needed to recover.
Common symptoms are diarrhea and vomiting, and bacteria in the lining of the intestines can damage cells, causing bloody diarrhea. "That’s where your immune system stops it," said Craig Altier of Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
But in rare cases, the bacterial infection can be deadly. About 400 people in the United States die every year from salmonella, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The current nationwide recall of eggs because of possible salmonella hits close to home for Barbara Pruitt, who nearly lost her life when her case of salmonella got out of control last year.
Pruitt, 42, of Lakeview, Oregon, has never fully recovered from the damage the infection did to her system.
"I walk, talk and breathe medical issues all the time," she said.
It all started one day in early August 2009. She felt as if she had the flu, with achiness, fatigue and nausea. Her symptoms worsened over the next few days, until one morning at 3:30 she woke up barely able to walk, vomiting and losing control of her bowels as she tried to find her cell phone.
Her teenage daughter drove her to the hospital. Doctors said she was having septic shock and tachycardia.
Doctors removed part of her small intestine. She lost about 40 pounds in three weeks, she said.
Pruitt’s memory of those days is vague, but she does recall a tube down her throat while her children were standing over her.
"I couldn’t figure out where I was, and honestly I was trying to figure out if I was dead or alive," she said.
She learned later that one of the doctors told her husband that he didn’t think Pruitt would survive. Her family thought it was a death watch.
The cause of her illness was Salmonella typhimurium, which is not the same as Salmonella enteritidis, the strain reported in the current massive recall of eggs. But these are both the most common strains to give humans diarrhea, and usually manifest themselves in the similar ways clinically, Altier said.
For salmonella to cause severe damage, as in Pruitt’s case, the bacteria leave the intestine and enter the bloodstream, causing sepsis, Altier said.
Those most at risk for more serious salmonella infections are the elderly, small children and people with compromised immune systems, he said.
"It’s an extreme outcome of salmonella," Pruitt said. Doctors "don’t know why it impacted me so greatly," whereas other people recover in a few days.
In between hospitalizations, a state public health department contacted Pruitt, asking her about what she had eaten around the time of her illness. The one thing that she and others with this strain of salmonella had in common was lettuce. Pruitt had eaten a sandwich with lettuce on it the day before she initially fell ill.
Pruitt spent August to November in and out of hospitals. Today, she is still having bowel issues and extreme joint pain and feels sick to her stomach a lot. She can’t work more than four to six hours a day, she says.
Both at work and in family activities, she has to plan extremely carefully for situations in which she needs a bathroom right away. Everyone knows about her condition, but she also struggles with embarassment.
"My whole day revolves around dealing with my medical issues or us working around my medical issues," she said. "We now plan how I can participate rather than focusing on the enjoyment of anything that we would like to do."
As for the current egg recall situation, Pruitt says it will be a long time before she eats eggs again, either.
Pruitt won’t even eat lettuce that she has grown in her own garden, because it makes her want to vomit.
"It’s very hard to talk about it and to hold back tears," she said. "If I can stress anything to anybody, I cannot believe how my life changed."