It’s been nearly a year since her daughter, Olivia, 3, passed away from complications relating to an E. coli infection, and Haley Cruz wants something positive to come from the tragedy. Along with a bakery in Van Alstyne, TX, named after her daughter, Sweet Olivia’s Bake Shoppe, Cruz has started a special project to help entertain sick children who are hospitalized for foodborne and other illnesses. The fundraising effort is aimed at buying new toys and games for two playrooms at the Texoma Medical Center in Denison, TX, where Cruz once worked and where Olivia was treated before eventually being transferred to a Dallas hospital, where she died May 27, 2014.

Haley, Alex and Olivia Cruz
Alex, Haley, and Olivia Cruz
“[Olivia] was so bored; even if they’re little and they’re sick, they still want to play and do something. That would be a perfect way to keep Olivia’s memory alive and give those kids in the hospital sick like she was something to do,” Cruz told Food Safety News. Hospital pediatric floors and other areas where children are treated for illnesses often get donated stuffed animals and toys, but it’s nice to have new things and keep them rotating so that sick kids have a variety of something new, she added. “The plan is to have mobile stations full of toys that they can take into their rooms and play with the whole time they’re sick,” Cruz explained. “When they’re discharged, [the toys] can all be sanitized and go back.” Cruz said she cleared the project with Texoma Medical Center’s head of pediatrics, who told her that the staff couldn’t think of anything better to help remember Olivia, who was born at the Denison hospital. “A lot of the nurses on the floor knew her very well. It wasn’t just that I lost her, they lost her as well,” Cruz said.

Olivia first became ill in mid-May of last year with unexplained bloody diarrhea, her mother said. She took Olivia to her pediatrician, who diagnosed the little girl with the flu and prescribed antibiotics. It was the same story at the hospital emergency room, Cruz said.

“They just discharged her as having the flu. I took her back to her pediatrician the next morning, and he just said it’s a stomach bug, and if she’s not any better this afternoon, call me,” Cruz recalled.

After not being able to reach the pediatrician later the same day, she called another one who told her something was wrong and to get Olivia to the hospital.

“I met him there, and he started treating her for some other stomach thing, not E. coli,” Cruz said. Eventually testing was done for E. coli and the positive result came back three days later.

“At that point, her kidney levels and everything were off the charts,” Cruz said. Olivia was then transferred to Medical City Hospital in Dallas.

Alex and  Olivia Cruz
Alex and Olivia Cruz

Olivia had developed a life-threatening complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, which occurs in about 5-10 percent of those infected with E. coli 157:H7. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people with HUS recover within a few weeks, but some of them suffer permanent damage or die.

Cruz and about 50 other mothers of children who have had HUS are linked up via a special Facebook page, and Cruz said that it’s been a helpful way to share their common experiences.

“Parents will post all the time about their child six-month post-HUS who is having these symptoms, and did you child have that?” she said.

How Olivia got an E. coli infection was never completely clear, Cruz said, although her illness occurred right around the time of the May 19, 2014, recall of 1.8 million pounds of ground beef linked to Wolverine Packing Company of Detroit.

While out grocery shopping, Cruz said her daughter used to poke her finger into a package of ground beef in the cart, and it’s possible that she could have gotten some raw product on her finger and then put it into her mouth.

“That’s about the only thing I can think of,” Cruz said, adding, “If your child’s going to die, you want to know how or why, what caused it. If you don’t know, you can’t protect your other children.”

She called her only daughter “a fiery, spunky little girl” who liked to hang out with the boys, including her older brother, Alex.

 “Sweet Olivia’s Playroom Project,” hosted by, has already raised about $2,000 of the $25,000 goal since Cruz launched the effort April 15. As part of the fundraising effort, she also launched a Booster T-shirt project, which has brought in more than $500 so far.

Meanwhile, Cruz said there are plans in the works for a couple of fundraising events later this summer and some sponsorships opportunities for those donating to have their name on a special plaque in the hospital playroom.