When Joanna Valentine finally got pregnant after two years of attempts and more than 10 years together with her partner, Laurie Sorenson, she knew that she was going to take every recommended precaution during her pregnancy. Part of that meant buckling down on the adventurous side of her diet.
Despite being a self-described foodie, Valentine chose to eliminate any relatively risky foods from the menu. She and Sorenson had gone through enough hassle just trying to make the pregnancy happen – they didn’t want to worry about complications or jeopardize welcoming their son, Felix, into the world.
Months into her pregnancy, for example, Valentine went to the beach for a picnic with friends, where she almost ate some smoked salmon until she had a second thought about it. Before she took a bite, she pulled out her phone and ran a search on Google about the safety of smoked salmon. She instantly found a number of recent recalls and problems linked to a bacteria called Listeria monocytogenes.
Listeria monocytogenes had recently killed more than 30 people in the fall of 2011 from contaminating cantaloupe. It can be especially threatening to pregnant women, she read, as it can cause premature delivery, miscarriage, stillbirth, and other serious health problems for newborns.
Valentine quickly pulled up a list of foods most likely to contain Listeria: deli meats, hot dogs, meat spreads, smoked seafood, raw sprouts, raw milk and soft raw-milk cheese. Reading that it could take several weeks for symptoms of a Listeria infection to appear, she decided she would rather not indulge in any of those foods and spare herself weeks of paranoia.
“A lot of people don’t know about Listeria, and I really didn’t know either,” Valentine said. “When I read about it, it just sounded so insidious.”
Valentine’s precautions are exactly why she and Sorenson were shocked when, at 26 weeks pregnant, she ended up in the hospital giving premature birth after suffering from an apparent Listeria infection.
The series of events that led Valentine to the hospital weren’t caused by the smoked salmon or any of the other high-risk foods she was avoiding. Instead, it was a hard artisan cheese made from pasteurized milk – something considered to be a relatively low-risk food.
After the beach picnic, Valentine progressed through the pregnancy eating a pretty hum-drum diet. One day at the grocery store, she was feeling a little desperate for variety when she found herself in front of the cheese case, talking to a clerk about safe cheeses to eat during a pregnancy.
She settled on the safest-looking option, which happened to be imported from Italy. She took it to a friend’s house for dinner that night and then ate it every day in her salad at lunch until it was gone.
“When you’re pregnant, you’re hungry all the time,” she said, laughing. “I was overexcited about the cheese.”
Ten days after buying the cheese, Valentine came down with a fever and a minor upset stomach. Being well into the pregnancy, she had come to expect feeling under the weather on occasion, and so she thought little of it and it dissipated.
But another week after that, the symptoms came back, only worse, and were followed by lower back pain. Then came the minor contractions, which prompted a trip to the hospital.
Hospital personnel thought she might have a kidney infection. They put her on a strong antibiotic and pumped her full of fluid to flush her kidney, which turned out not to be the problem after all.
“That turned out to be the seventh circle of hell, because I didn’t actually have a kidney infection – I was going into labor,” Valentine said.
At this point, Valentine still had no idea she was infected with Listeria. All she knew was that she was entering premature labor at 26.5 weeks.
“A premature baby that has nothing else wrong with it would probably be fine at that point,” Valentine said, “but I had a very strong intuition that something was wrong.”
When Felix finally arrived, he weighed just under four pounds – on track to be a healthy baby boy if not for the Listeria. But Valentine’s amniotic fluid was green, and Felix’s body was covered in lesions and he wasn’t breathing.
Staff resuscitated Felix, but, as Valentine described it, “That just sent us down a rabbit hole.”
Felix was found to have spinal meningitis and bleeding in his brain. He had been suffering from a fever since Valentine first became infected with Listeria. Even if he survived, he would have been blind, deaf, and physically and mentally disabled.
“He was in really bad shape, and yet they were doing everything they could to save his body, even as his brain was deteriorating,” Valentine said. “You have no choice in that. You can’t say he’s suffering too much. You’re just totally helpless.”
But, after two weeks of struggling to keep Felix alive, doctors pronounced him brain-dead.
It wasn’t until immediately after giving birth that Valentine finally learned that she was infected with Listeria. At first, she told her doctors they were wrong – she knew about Listeria and had been especially cautious to avoid it.
Still doubtful, Valentine again pulled out her phone and ran a Google search on Listeria. One of the very first things she saw was a recall alert for cheese – the cheese she had been eating weeks earlier.
The same friend who first ate the cheese with her was there in the hospital room, and Valentine showed the information to her. “Oh, my God, that’s the cheese,” her friend said.
“I had an anxiety attack. I was just in total shock,” Valentine said. “This was all caused by cheese? It was seriously the most disturbing thing I’ve had to come to terms with in my life – that something so mundane as cheese could have possibly been the instigator of all this misery.”
Despite being a hard, pasteurized cheese, the brand Valentine purchased was still somehow contaminated with Listeria. In total, at least 20 people were sickened in the outbreak, which occurred in the second half of 2012.
While at first she was hesitant to take legal action, Valentine eventually sued the cheese manufacturer after retaining legal representation from food safety attorney Bill Marler, whose law firm, Marler Clark, underwrites Food Safety News. Part of her settlement involved signing an agreement not to disparage the company.
After Felix passed, family and friends honored his life with a ceremony and put his cremated remains in an adorned box. They “went gangbusters” decorating the box, which turned out to be a very cathartic experience. After the ceremony, Valentine focused on rebuilding her health, feeling an enormous amount of support from loved ones.
“I’ve now come to know a lot of women who have lost babies, and, for women who don’t know what caused it, it’s worse,” Valentine said. “In a way, it was a relief to know what happened, even though at first I was beyond disturbed that it happened because of cheese.”
Three months after giving birth to Felix, Valentine and Sorenson decided to restart the fertilization process. To their enormous surprise, Valentine was pregnant in the first month of attempts.
“I was pregnant forever,” Valentine laughed, having her second pregnancy last 10 months on top of the six months she was pregnant with Felix.
On Oct. 15, 2013, Valentine and Sorenson welcomed their son, Soren, now four months old.
“He’s the biggest, healthiest, happiest baby,” Valentine said. “Our story has a super-happy ending.”
Valentine said that the biggest lesson her family has taken away from their experience is that foodborne illness can strike anyone, regardless of their level of caution. Even more important than caution, she said, was advocating for stricter food safety standards.
“The takeaway from this story is not that you’re safe if you’re overly paranoid and cautious,” she said. “I was careful as can be.”
She added that despite their loss, the outpouring of support from loved ones and Marler – and even some strangers – helped her and Sorenson through the experience without severe struggle.
“People came through for us so well that we felt even more of a love for humanity than we had before,” Valentine said. “And now I have a healthy baby who helps me move forward.”© Food Safety News