It was October 30, 2009; I was driving to central Texas from Grapevine, Texas for an hours-long hospital job interview. I was to meet first with the chief medical officer, after which I was scheduled for a lunch interview in the hospital’s conference room with the staff of 70 people that I would be directing. I was running late for the staff meeting, so they purchased a couple sandwich options for me: tuna salad or chicken salad. Deciding I didn’t want to have fish breath for the interview, I chose the chicken salad.
I didn’t finish the last of my interviews until 3:00 p.m., then started on my four-hour drive home. Because my 2 ½-year-old son had just gotten home from an emergency surgery for a life-threatening condition, and we had a 3-month-old baby, I decided to not stop for dinner, but to get home as soon as possible.
The drive was uneventful, but as I was getting into town, my stomach started feeling bad. I figured I was just hungry and would eat at home. But the more I drove, the worse my stomach felt, with the pain growing intense and sweat beginning to form. I felt so awful that when I got home, I went directly to my bedroom without greeting anyone, laid down on the floor of the walk-in closet, and curled into a ball. Within minutes, I had to rush to the toilet where I vomited uncontrollably, with a force that was so powerful it splashed up into my face. But even that didn’t end it; I had to switch positions to sit on the toilet as the diarrhea came, then grab the trash can where I continued vomiting — very quickly filling it.
My wife and mother-in-law, who had come over to help out my wife, had no idea what was going on. Not only did my wife think me rude for running into the bedroom without a word, she was angered that I did not stop to tell her about the interview or even greet her mother.
But, with my continuous vomiting and diarrhea, paired with the cramping in my stomach, I no longer had the strength to stand, let alone go out to apologize. When I finally had a brief pause — lying on the bathroom floor covered in vomit and diarrhea — I reached into my pocket, pulled out my phone, and texted “help” to my wife. Arriving within seconds and finding me in the middle of yet another bout of this never-ending barrage, she tried to help me up, but I was too weak to stand. So, she ran across the street to get a neighbor, who, with my wife and mother-in-law, carried me to the car.
When I arrived at the emergency room sick and covered in every sort of bodily fluid, the hospital staff donned protective gear and ushered me to a back room as quickly as possible. For the next several hours I continued to vomit uncontrollably, though with no food left in my stomach, it became a powerful retching, followed by an extremely painful expulsion of thick bile. I was given Phenergan and a continuous IV drip to help replace my fluids. The vomiting continued throughout the night, through the entire second day, and into the third. I was hospitalized for four days, during which I lost almost 14 pounds and drifted in and out of consciousness. Though I was put on a continuous drip to help replenish my fluids and electrolytes, the IV was not fast enough to keep up with what I was expelling.
Because the hospital could not determine what was sickening me, my wife was not allowed to visit. She was told it could be life threatening, and since she was still breast feeding our baby and our oldest son was still recovery from surgery, they did not want to expose them. But it was very stressful to all of us. Having been unconscious for two days, I was unaware she had been banned or that she’d been calling and texting. My wife was convinced I was dying; she was suddenly on her own and felt very alone.
When I was finally discharged, the lab work had still not come back, so the cause was still unknown. In total, I was in the hospital or home sick for six days, lost four days from work, and didn’t regain my full strength for three months. During my hospital stay, Halloween had come and gone, and I was only able to see photos and hear about my oldest in his dragon costume, youngest as Count Dracula, and my wife wheeling them both from house to house in a wagon.
Finally receiving the lab report after a few more days, we learned I’d been infected with Salmonella enterica. I can only surmise that either the chicken was not cooked properly since Salmonella is found in chicken, or a food worker failed to wash their hands properly after handling raw chicken. This, I believe, is a much more common cause of salmonellosis. Either way, the issue was caused by improper handling and preparation of the chicken.
Thankfully, I have no lingering health issues, but emotionally, the experience has been very difficult. In the hospital, I worried that I would die and never see my boys again. My wife, who also feared I would not make it, faced the prospect of being a single mother of two boys. Afterward, I did not eat out at a restaurant for almost a year, and still will not eat chicken unless I cook it myself, and even then I worry. I have become pseudo-vegetarian, but at every meal, regardless of what I eat, I worriedly wait out the next six to seven hours. I cannot see, smell, or eat chicken salad without getting physically ill.
I am not sure how things need to change to prevent foodborne illness, but I know that people, in general, do not wash their hands properly. I work in healthcare and frequently see even healthcare professionals not washing their hands or just running them quickly under water and then drying off. I have been in a public restroom when MDs walk in, go to the bathroom, walk to the mirror, fix their hair, then walk out.
It is a serious societal problem, and I can only assume that food workers are the same as everyone else. The signs in restrooms that read Employees must wash their hands crack me up — I have witnessed employees not washing their hands. And shouldn’t the sign read Everyone must wash their hands?
Read David’s full story and others at https://stopfoodborneillness.org/stories/david.