on assignment: south africa

Johannesburg — The daughter in law of a woman who died due to listeriosis has told of the devastating impact the loss has had on the family.

Johanna Petronella Pienaar lived in Krugersdorp and died on December 31, 2017. The 77-year-old was a pensioner taking care of a 14-year-old grandchild. She lived in a house on the same property as daughter in law, Marlize Pienaar as well as Marlize’s parents.

Marlize has two boys, one aged 14 and the other aged 15 called Juandre and Freddy, as well as Adriaan Swart, who is 22 and Sharne, aged 16, who they also take care of.

“If you come to this property and speak to us, we sit with kids who cry themselves to sleep at night. They didn’t get a goodbye. We’ve got to pick up the pieces. There were two kids that depended on her. All of us have to take care of those kids and emotionally have to support each other because she was ripped away from us, it wasn’t like we got warned. For eating the food she was removed from our lives,” Marlize told Food Safety News.

Johanna liked camping and the family had a holiday booked in December before she became ill.

“She wanted a better bed, we bought her one of the most expensive ones and she never got to sleep on it. We sold our caravan because how can we ever go camping again? It is too sore,” said Marlize.

“We can’t get over the fact we can’t put up photos in our house because my kids are still heartbroken. If she had to die of old age or a heart attack but she was such a healthy person, she never complained and took care of us more than we took care of her.”

The Listeria outbreak was linked to polony, ready-to-eat processed meat, produced by Tiger Brands in its Enterprise Foods facility in Polokwane, South Africa. Johanna was one of 1,060 confirmed cases and 216 deaths between January 2017, and July 2018.

The emotional impact

From left to right: Freddy, Sharne, Johanna, Adriaan, and Juandre

People don’t understand the severity of the emotional impact, according to the 38-year-old.

“Juandre was her baby boy, he said who is going to pick me up after school, come and watch my cricket games and buy me KFC, for instance? We look at her house every day, you are waiting for her to come out and water her plants. At the back of this yard we have a Zen garden where we keep her ashes because my kids can’t get over it, even for me she was my friend. I don’t think we will ever get closure because of something silly like this.

“You expect people to put laws in place for what you are eating, next up could be whatever. We used to buy polony and viennas, how many times have I put my kids at risk, making them food which you think is fine?”

Johanna was taken to the doctor for a check-up in early December 2017 and referred to hospital but discharged after one day. One week later she was taken to hospital again.

Marlize said the first complaints of illness came during her birthday on November 27 when they had friends over.

“That evening she came to us and said she was not feeling well, complaining about flu-like symptoms. That night she slept in our house but we didn’t make anything of it,” she said.

“Two or three times a week I would make supper and she would come over and eat with us, the next night we were phoning her and asking why are you not coming? She was complaining that she was nauseous. The next morning she woke up with a headache. It was different symptoms on different days. There was nothing on the news about an outbreak to relate to and say these symptoms tie up to this.”

On December 2, Johanna was taken to the hospital. She had an old back injury but was allergic to medicines including penicillin, cortisone, and paracetamol.

“They would admit her for a day to do some testing then the next day they would release her and this is exactly what happened. The whole week she was in her house, she didn’t want to come out, she was sleepy,” said Marlize.

“My little boy, Freddy, was with her as he liked to visit his grandma and it was the school holidays. He would sleep there and she never came here. We would ask are you ok and she would moan and complain about body ache, nausea and she didn’t want to eat.”

Admission for salt levels

At the end of the week, the family contacted Marlize’s sister in law, Nicolene Meiring, who lives in Rustenberg to get the opinion of different doctors and Johanna saw a homeopath due to the pain. On December 10, the family took Johanna to the hospital where she was admitted.

“When we got to the hospital we had to get paramedics to pick her up out of the car and she just basically collapsed into their arms because she was too weak. When they came back with the blood they had drawn, they told us she is very sick but she was being admitted for salt levels,” said Marlize.

“We couldn’t understand why they would put her in ICU if salt levels are not correct. That diagnosis was from December 10 until December 17. We as a family could not understand, how can your salt levels make you after the third day go into a coma? She fell asleep and never woke up.

“Up until the day my mother in law was taken to hospital nobody knew about [Listeria], we received a What’s App message, we didn’t make much of it because there are so many scams going around. They would have advertised or put it on the news, people would have been more aware. When we took her to the hospital we showed the doctor the message because we weren’t sure, she was nauseous and had funny symptoms and we said we saw this, won’t you test her for it? He said are you the doctor or am I?

“People started talking about listeriosis but it wasn’t on the news to issue warnings, we asked again if they could check and make sure. We phoned our house doctor and he informed us prior to the day she was admitted to hospital they were notified via email that there was a listeriosis outbreak but we weren’t informed.”

Polony and viennas were popular with the kids and Johanna had bought them because it was a holiday and the grandkids were staying with her.

“Obviously all of them ate it but she was the only one, I don’t know how it happened. I will never ever eat any kind of polony again,” said Marlize.

“On Facebook, there was a story that Enterprise was putting it back on shelves and I commented, I felt it was my duty to inform people, some take it lightly and think it was a joke, it’s not. Haven’t Enterprise got their own health inspectors, why didn’t they pick it up?”

Just one day to give an update

Polony on supermarket shelves February 2019. Picture: Joe Whitworth

Marlize said nothing in the world would bring the family more joy than having her back.

“All of us are taking one day at a time, so many things have happened and you just wish you could have her one day to give an update on what has gone on in our lives because she loved family news, to see how our kids have grown, the last grandchild went to grade eight now, she would have been the first one and most proud grandmother to have seen that,” she said.

“Obviously we never prepared, she would have gone out with a fight, but the way she died she didn’t have a chance. Freddie and Nicolene also lost a brother and we are still dealing with that and it is many years ago. After that my mother in law so it is difficult, we are just hoping to find closure.”

The family-run a poultry company that manufactures equipment such as chicken houses, steel structures, layered cages and other equipment for chickens.

Marlize said people were not informed about listeriosis and staff at the company were shocked to hear what had happened.

“After my mother in law passed away all of them came to the funeral and wanted to know what happened and we explained to them and everybody was stunned. I am so glad she fell asleep and I hope to God she didn’t feel any pain. When she passed away she had pipes in her head, throat, and stomach and cuts and bruises, it is torture to think that one moment she could look like she did and then die from polony looking like that.”

While in hospital, Johanna was treated for a stomach bug and nausea but was often sleeping or confused when the family visited.

“When we got to my mother in law she was very sleepy and I started complaining as maybe there are giving medicine she is allergic to because of her reaction. On Tuesday, Freddie went with the kids, that was the first time they saw their grandmother in the hospital, and one minute she was talking fine and the next she was saying take the chops out of the fridge I am going to make supper tonight. When we admitted her she was talking gibberish the doctors could see in her eyes she was not with us.”

Marlize said the hospital considered discharging Johanna before neurological testing found fluid on her brain and she underwent an operation.

“They said they’ve got to go and look at neuro so from treating her for salt levels to now looking at the brain and she has never woken up since then. That night they phoned us after checking to tell us before my husband went for visiting, we’ve got to sign immediately, they need authority to do a brain operation to release pressure off the brain as she had meningitis.”

The family marked what would have been Johanna’s 78th birthday on December 17.

“We all sat around and had a chat and said enough with these doctors now, we are going to look for a doctor and eventually we got hold off Dr. Vermooten but it was already too late. The disease had developed too far, he picked up the listeriosis, he came back to tell us what was wrong. When she died we found out it was listeriosis. The hospital told us two or three days before her death and the documentation started to say it,” said Marlize.

“Make sure from the beginning you have the right doctors, are in the right hospital, you are informed, go and read up as much as you can and inform people around you of the extent of what that person is going to go through.

“We are not qualified nurses who studied medicine, so when you take someone to a hospital you expect those people to be informed of whatever is going on, not for us to decide she is nauseous, her stomach is aching, for us to make up the disease. I’m not qualified to know if salt levels can make you nauseous. We were looking in their eyes, we are bringing you a broken patient, she is sick and ill, please help us make her better.”

Editor’s note: In early February, Joe Whitworth traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa, for Food Safety News to interview some of the people who were affected by the Listeria outbreak. It’s been nearly eight months since government officials declared the outbreak over, but victims and their families continue to struggle to overcome its impact. In the past weeks, we have published a series of stories to help ensure that the public’s voice is heard.

To read more coverage about the impact of the outbreak, please see:


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