On Wednesday, August 30, 2006. Jillian Kohl, a thrifty graduate student at the time, ate a spinach salad.  Several days later the 24-year-old marathon runner began feeling ill and called her mother, who recommended resting.

By Monday, she was passing blood and had to be admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit.

Kohl, sickened by E. coli O157:H7, was one of many who ate contaminated bagged spinach produced by Dole Brand Natural Selection Foods. The outbreak caused 205 reported illnesses, 103 hospitalizations and three deaths.  Kohl developed a complication, hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), that threw her and her family’s life into chaos.

She spent almost three weeks in the hospital hooked up to machines, suffering from intense pain.

After being released from the hospital, Kohl worked to get her life back to normal, re-enrolling in graduate school the following semester and resuming running–something she had loved doing before her illness.

Although she tried to be positive and thankful that she had recovered, she eventually had to face what had happened to her–and going through a grieving process of denial, sadness, anger, guilt (for surviving while others didn’t), and finally, acceptance. “The whole experience made me grow up quite a bit,” Kohl told Food Safety News.

“I have gained such a great appreciation for everything that I experience in my life. It was quite the wake up call to eat a salad one day, and then almost have my life end because of it. You just never know. I am thankful for every day that I have now. I also pay a lot more attention to food recalls and food safety–something I didn’t think twice about before I got sick,”  she said.

After doing a TV interview about her experience, Kohl was contacted by S.T.O.P- Safe Tables Our Priority, the non-profit organization that advocates sound public policy to help prevent the suffering caused by foodborne illness. 

Kohl began volunteering for the group, sharing her story and writing letters to politicians.  Then last month Jillian decided to attempt a half marathon (13.1 miles), The Tyranena Beer Run in Lake Mills, WI, to raise money for S.T.O.P. as well as to raise awareness of foodborne illness.

Kohl’s initial goal was $500.  Then Bill Marler of the Seattle-based, food safety law firm Marler Clark, who had represented Kohl in her suit against Dole, pledged $5,000 if Jillian could achieve a new  PR (personal record).  To do that, she would need to beat her previous time of 1:57:41.

Kohl said, “I was very worried I wasn’t going to reach this goal, since I had found out that this race course had a lot of hills. But I tried my best anyway.  I wasn’t running for me that day, I was running for S.T.O.P. That made me push myself that much harder. The best part of the race was seeing my parents right before the finish line, cheering “go go go!”, and then looking over at the finish line clock and realizing that I really did just PR.”

Altogether, she raised $5,500 in the “Walk/Run for S.T.O.P.”