For 11-year-old Andrea Munro, the night of Sep. 24 held no surprises: after sharing a meal of hamburger patties with her grandmother, as she had done many times before, Andrea spent the evening at her grandmother’s apartment in Marshfield, MA before returning home to her family’s house down the street. Everything seemed fine.
It wasn’t until four days later that signs of trouble arrived. On Sep. 28, Andrea, suffering from stomach pain and fatigue, went to the school nurse. The nurse had her rest for the remainder of the day, but the pain and symptoms continued.
By the time she got home from school, Andrea was in excruciating pain, writhing and screaming from waves of stomach cramps and cold chills. The breaking point for Andrea’s mother, Lisa Pieroni, came after Andrea’s diarrhea turned bloody. Lisa, recognizing the urgency of Andrea’s condition, rushed her daughter to Children’s Hospital in Boston.
Even as an experienced nurse, Lisa remembers being surprised at how quickly and powerfully the symptoms descended on her daughter. “We were terrified of her sudden illness and level of discomfort,” she recalls. “The screaming was really scaring me. What is going on in her body that could cause these screams?”
After arriving at Children’s Hospital, a wailing Andrea was hooked up to an IV and given heavy doses of morphine to alleviate the pain. The early diagnosis offered by the doctors was E. coli O157. Her parents, horrified, had no idea what to expect. “We feared she might need dialysis or have devastating lasting effects,” Lisa remembers. “We kept asking, what’s going to happen next?”
Lisa did not know it at the time, but Andrea had been infected with the potentially lethal bacterium E. coli O157:H7 and was part of an outbreak that would eventually affect the entire Northeast. A few days later, on October 31, meat producer Fairbank Farms recalled 545,699 pounds of fresh ground beef products for potential E. coli contamination. E. coli cases associated with the recall have since been reported in 11 states and sickened 26 people, resulting in two deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Andrea’s grandmother, Margaret Pieroni, had unknowingly purchased contaminated ground beef and served it to her granddaughter.
Andrea remained in the hospital for six days, receiving morphine injections every four hours, her only form of subsistence coming through an IV. Her suffering, despite the pain medicine, persisted. According to Andrea, the pain came in waves every 30 minutes and felt as though someone had “jabbed me with a knife and started to turn it.”
Culture tests of Andrea’s stool confirmed the presence of E. coli O157:H7, which family and state officials eventually traced back to the hamburger eaten on the night of September 24. Although most people who contract E. coli fully recover, 5-10 percent develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a condition that can lead to kidney failure and in extreme cases, death. Andrea’s parents, acutely aware of the bacterium’s deadly potential, could only wait and pray.
”We had to watch our child scream in agonizing pain for four whole days and nights,” Lisa recounts with difficulty. “We felt helpless.”
Andrea, fortunately, was sent home within six days.
However, Andrea’s release from the hospital did not signal the end of the family’s battle with E. coli. Within days of Andrea’s discharge, Margaret Pieroni began to feel the same awful symptoms, and she too was hospitalized, confirmed to be suffering from an E. coli infection, and treated.
Then, shortly after, Andrea’s twin brother Christopher was hospitalized with severe abdominal pain and diarrhea, just as his sister and grandmother had been.
On November 3rd, the family filed a claim in the Plymouth County Superior Court for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts against the Ashville, NY-based Fairbank Farms. Andrea, Christopher, and Margaret are represented by Marler Clark, the Seattle law firm dedicated to representing victims of foodborne illness, and by Steven Sabra of the Somerset, MA firm Sabra & Aspden.
Although Andrea, Christopher and Margaret have all returned home from the hospital, they continue to be monitored for possible complications. Despite the occasional bout of diarrhea, the family is substantially healthier, but their trust in food safety is forever damaged.
“You should not have to take your life in your hands when you eat a hamburger,” protests Lisa Pieroni. “They (the corporations) know it’s there. They’re not testing enough, and they should be.”