Haughey, a registered nurse, had plenty of reason herself to celebrate. On Jan. 22, after nine months of testing positive for Salmonella, she finally cleared a check-up.
That would be good news for anyone, but, as a nurse, it meant she could finally go back to working with patients. For the health department, it meant they didn’t have to pay for any more monthly tests on her.
Even as a nurse, Haughey said she never anticipated a foodborne illness could cause so much anxiety, distress and disruption to a person’s life. Both Haughey and her husband, Dennis, had fallen ill with Salmonella poisoning after eating at Firefly, a popular tapas restaurant in Las Vegas, where they were vacationing last April.
They weren’t alone, either. Weeks later they would learn that they had been just two out of at least 294 people from 27 states and two foreign countries sickened with Salmonella after dining at the restaurant. Their story is one of tens of thousands that involve Salmonella infections in the U.S. each year.
The Haugheys had eaten at Firefly on Monday, April 22, based on the recommendation of their son and daughter-in-law. The food was delicious, Mari said, but by Tuesday afternoon, she was beginning to fall ill with stomach cramping and diarrhea.
Thinking she just had an upset stomach, Mari tried to sit through the night of continuous diarrhea. The couple followed through with plans to travel to Death Valley the next day, but her condition only degraded once they got there.
“We got to Death Valley, checked in, and then from 3 p.m. to 6 a.m. the next morning, I spent the entire time vomiting and sitting on the toilet,” she told Food Safety News.
Mari and Dennis decided to drive back home to San Francisco later that day, but Dennis began succumbing to the same symptoms during the nine-hour drive home.
After countless pit-stops, the couple made it home and took Mari directly to the nearest emergency room, where she continued to have uncontrollable diarrhea.
“These are people I work with,” she recounted. “It was so embarrassing.”
Upon entry to the emergency room, Mari’s potassium levels were low enough to put her at risk of heart arrhythmia and death.
“The doctors really didn’t believe I was so sick until they got back the potassium levels,” Mari said. Still, they sent her home with diarrhea medication, which didn’t work.
Mari’s second emergency room visit came days later, as she was still suffering from severe bouts of diarrhea. By Sunday, laboratory tests confirmed she had Salmonella, and she was given an antibiotic.
It was another week before she began feeling back to normal, and that’s when Dennis heard that they were part of a large Salmonella outbreak linked to Firefly in Las Vegas. The restaurant had been serving contaminated food for five days before a problem was detected.
While Mari and Dennis both recovered physically, Mari still had another hurdle to overcome: In order to return to her nursing work, she needed to produce a negative test for Salmonella.
Fellow healthcare providers told her that she would pass the test without any problem, but her first test results came back positive for Salmonella. They decided to have her wait a week before returning, but the next week’s test was positive as well.
To save money, the health department began testing Mari on a monthly basis, but she wasn’t allowed to have direct contact with patients until she could produce a negative test. Her employer switched her over to strictly providing pre-operation education to patients, which didn’t require any contact.
“Luckily, I have a wonderful employer,” Mari said. “If I was working somewhere else, I might have just been fired.”
Regardless, anxiety set in as she wondered when she’d be allowed to get back to a normal work routine. She knew the Salmonella issue was putting more pressure on her coworkers.
“I’m a big people person,” she added. “It’s been really hard to not be able to do my job.”
Even for her time at home, Mari was advised against having contact with her elderly mother, though she took special care to wash her hands instead of avoiding her mother altogether.
It wasn’t until Jan. 22, exactly nine months after eating at Firefly, that Mari was cleared to return to normal work duties. While children will sometimes carry Salmonella for a year or more, it’s quite uncommon for adults to continue carrying the bacteria.
But it can happen on occasion. Mari said she heard from another health professional of a dentist who could not rid himself of the bacteria and ended up changing careers because he could not be in contact with patients. It may be more common among adults than is known, but generally only professionals in healthcare and the food service industry need to clear Salmonella tests to return to work.
Firefly was riddled with lawsuits, and, shortly after the outbreak, moved to another location, which the owners had planned to do before the outbreak occurred. The Haugheys settled with Firefly out of court after retaining legal representation from food safety law firm Marler Clark, which underwrites Food Safety News.
Now that she’s back to work, Mari said the new hurdle is becoming comfortable with dining out again. Thankfully, she said she enjoys cooking, to the point of being a gourmet-level perfectionist.
“We do go out, but it was hard the first time,” she said. “I take so much pride in my own cooking that it’s frustrating when others aren’t especially careful when serving the public.”
Photo: Mari Haughey at Firefly. Courtesy of the Haughey family.