Melissa Lee was raised by a vegetarian mother on a germ alert. She disinfected surfaces, washed hands frequently and scrubbed food before cooking or eating.
Lee kept those habits after marrying and having a baby, but learned to love meat.
Health-conscious, Lee bought lean cuts, choosing ground turkey instead of beef. She stored it in plastic in the refrigerator and ensured it was cooked thoroughly when Ruby started eating meat in late May.
Two weeks later, the 10-month-old had to be rushed to the emergency room.
The brown-haired, blue-eyed beauty was suddenly a statistic: one of nearly 80 confirmed cases of Salmonella poisoning linked to ground turkey.
The outbreak, which killed an elderly woman in California and has likely sickened thousands, prompted the third largest meat recall in U.S. history and the biggest overall in terms of a health threat.
Cargill, the manufacturer, closed the Arkansas plant where the turkey was produced, mounted an investigation and apologized to consumers.
Ruby, who lives with her parents in Troutdale outside Portland, is the only known patient in Oregon. The baby recovered, but Lee remains angry her only child was poisoned by a food she considered safe.
Since birth, Ruby’s been a happy baby. Slow to cry and quick to smile, she giggles at strangers and bounces to pop tunes on the radio. She has plenty of toys but prefers Tupperware and the TV remote.
She’s always moving, grabbing, exploring. But in early June, she suddenly lost her jest. She clung in her parents arms, wailed when they put her down.
But the diarrhea was the worst, requiring up to 20 diaper changes a day. When Ruby’s temperature spiked at 102.5 degrees on June 10, Lee rushed her to a Kaiser urgent care facility in Clackamas south of Portland.
Probably a virus, doctors said, not to worry. They prescribed Tylenol every four hours.
That seemed to help at first. But on June 13, the baby who gobbled her food had no appetite for dinner. Lee took her to their pediatrician the next day. Blood was drawn. Mother and baby went home. Lee, who is 24, returned to her job the next day at Home Depot, where she works the cash register.
During her shift, the pediatrician’s office called: Get Ruby to the emergency room. She’s got a bacterial infection.
It was terrifying not knowing what was wrong, Lee said.
For the next seven days, Lee never left her daughter’s room at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland. Her husband, Brandon Mullen-Bagby, 25, carted in supplies, then worked his night shift at Home Depot. After a few days in the hospital, tests confirmed the bug: Salmonella Heidelberg.
The strain is resistant to a number of widely prescribed antibiotics. Fortunately, doctors at Doernbecher gave her an effective antibiotic from the start.
On June 21, they discharged Ruby from the hospital and the diarrhea disappeared at the end of June. The baby was back to normal, giggling and bouncing to pop tunes.
But Lee still had no clue what poisoned her only child. Oregon Public Health officials quizzed her twice. The national Centers for Disease and Prevention called. Where had they been before she got sick? What had she eaten? What did they do at the Oregon Zoo?
Two weeks ago, the answer came in a phone call. William Keene, senior epidemiologist at Oregon Public Health, said Ruby was infected by ground turkey.
Lee was stunned. Then angry. She felt guilty, too. She’s haunted by the possibility of a repeat. She disinfected her kitchen, sterilized the baby’s room, stocked a cupboard with sanitary wipes. She and her husband also stopped buying meat, all meat, though they still have a package of frozen chicken wings in the freezer.
Someday the couple might cook that up for themselves. But they’re not going to feed it to the baby. After one terrifying bout with food poisoning, they are taking no chances.
Ruby turned 1 last week. Her family and friends celebrated at her parents’ home with a cheese quesadillas and veggie bar. For dessert: iced vanilla cake.
The one thing they didn’t eat was meat.
Lynne Terry is a reporter for The Oregonian in Portland, Oregon, covering food safety issues along with breaking news and other stories. She’s also worked at Oregon Public Broadcasting, producing a daily news magazine, and before that lived in Paris, where she was a correspondent for NPR. Follow her on Twitter @LynnePDX.