The daughter of a woman affected by the listeriosis outbreak in South Africa has told how the illness has taken a toll on the family and her mother.

Elizabeth Matthee, 73, fell ill in January 2018 and was in and out of hospital until early August of that year. Doctors initially thought the source of illness was her knee, but in March 2018, she was asked to return to hospital because tests confirmed she had listeriosis.

Elizabeth lives in an old age care home. Prior to her illness she enjoyed reading and watching TV and used to sit outside chatting and laughing with others at the home. The pensioner was able to move around with assistance. Her immune system has been severely hampered by listeriosis and she now depends on full-time care.

The listeriosis outbreak began at the start of 2017 and ended in September 2018 with 1,065 confirmed cases and 218 deaths. It was traced in March 2018 to a ready-to-eat processed meat product called polony made at a plant in Polokwane run by Enterprise Foods, which is owned by Tiger Brands.

Emotional impact
One of Elizabeth’s daughters, Christina Tiana Verhave, said she was a very bubbly, cheery type of person.

“We had absolute hell with touch and go situations continuously. This took a toll on my mother’s will to live, her spontaneity and her outlook on life in general. You could hear her laugh when you walk down the hall and everybody that knows her knows she will always have a joke, doesn’t matter if she is in pain or not. This took away her spirit because she was feeling so ill for so long, and she is still not well. At one stage she told me she doesn’t want to live anymore,” she told Food Safety News.

Having some polony was part of the regular routine for Elizabeth.

“Every single night she wanted Enterprise French or garlic polony, viennas from Spar or Woolworths with bread and coffee, that was her treat and she loved to have it for supper. Needless to say she is not touching polony since she found out what happened. I can’t even dare to ask her if she wants something like that. We eat ham but I don’t like polony so what we buy for my mum is different than what we eat. I thought they cleared everything to say it is safe now but I will never ever buy it again,” said Christina.

In and out of hospital
Elizabeth was first admitted to hospital in February 2018 due to an infection in her knee. The same month she was hospitalized with a urinary tract infection and more knee problems.

Elizabeth Matthee

In early March, blood tests showed she was positive for Listeria monocytogenes and after three weeks of treatment she was discharged. At the end of the month she was admitted again complaining of constant severe headaches, vomiting, and diarrhea. Her blood culture was negative for Listeria but a stool culture showed Clostridium difficile toxin. She was discharged one week into April.

Elizabeth had to go to hospital several times in April and May complaining of leg pain. She was readmitted in mid-June with complaints of nausea as well as stomach and leg pain but insisted on being discharged.

She was admitted again one week into July for symptoms of pneumonia and herpetic pharyngitis. She had developed sores in her mouth and had not been eating properly. Elizabeth remained in hospital until early August.

Christina said she was in and out of hospital with her mum and it was a never ending story.

“It was a long, long trial for us to get her to be healthy again. Now the knee is acting up again, it is smelling so bad, and I have another appointment at the hospital for a check-up,” she said.

“At first she fell ill with fever, we didn’t know what was going on so we took her to hospital, they couldn’t find what was at fault but they gave her some antibiotics and sent her home. We went again and eventually the second or third time as they were loading her into the ambulance, her knee where she had a previous knee replacement, the scar popped open and started draining. When they took her in hospital they did a swab and tested it. They sent her home again and it took a couple of weeks before they realized that she had listeriosis. The doctor phoned me and said I must bring her back immediately.”

Elizabeth’s treatment was further complicated by the fact she is allergic to penicillin, one of the antibiotics used to treat listeriosis.

“In hospital she was lethargic, she did know who I was but she had stories in her head that weren’t true and she got aggressive at a stage. They said it was the listeriosis treatment she was on,” said Christina.

“There was a fluid build-up in her ear drums because of the infection. So she couldn’t hear when we were talking to her and that made her more anxious and upset. We had to put our mouth by her ear and talk really loud for her to hear a kind of noise. She didn’t know what was going on around her.

“I’m with my mum every day at hospital, I sometimes drive there twice a day because the health care here is not good. I go and check up on her and see she is eating and drinking and I feed her if I need to and brush her teeth. I just look after her, I can’t not do that, I will never sleep if I were to leave her and not see her every day and know she is alright. I can see my mum is going downhill. I can feel when I touch her arms that her bones are brittle.”

A lasting memory
Christina said there is one occasion that she particularly remembers.

Enterprise Foods polony in supermarkets. February 2019. Picture: Joe Whitworth

“One night I remember, it was a Thursday, the old age home phoned me and said you must come to your mum, so when I got there she was out of it completely and it looked like a dead person lying in the bed. I saw her a week before, I used to fetch her to us at least every second weekend as we are a very close family and she was always game if you say lets do this or that,” she said.

“We phoned the ambulance service and they didn’t come. I was actually praying the Lord would take my mum because it was difficult for me to look at her and see she can’t really breathe.

“The next morning we were sitting by her bed waiting for the ambulance to come. It came Friday evening and then I sat next to her bed at hospital and in the ER until 11 that Saturday morning and a doctor still hadn’t come to see my mum. I had to go home and when I came back nobody knew where my mum was. They put her in a room that was almost like a storage room and left her there. When they read on her chart she had listeriosis they secluded her from everybody else and forgot she was there. She didn’t have her medication that she should have every four to five hours. It was horrifying to find my mother in that condition. We had so many bad experiences in hospital.”

Christina said she had heard of Listeria on the news but didn’t give it much attention.

“It was only when the doctor said your mum has listeriosis I said will you refresh my mind and then it all dawned on me. Since then people have been treating her differently because they are scared to be close to people with Listeria, they think she is contagious. It was an experience, we had to explain to staff working with her and people sharing the room that they are safe and she can’t infect them.”

Christina is a single mother, working long hours in a bookkeeping and accounting job and she sometimes relies on her sister to help with her 11-year-old son.

“You have to be strong and carry on for your family’s sake. It gets to a point where I work in the evening and at weekends and rush from the hospital to work and back to hospital and then I come home and see everything is sorted with my son. Tomorrow morning you get up at 5am and start your day, I go to the hospital before work to see she is fine and then to work, sometimes I will go during lunch if I know I can’t make it after work. I don’t know what the future holds, I am just trying to survive from one day to the other.”

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)