Salmonella potentially changed my granddaughter’s life

Editor’s note: This essay was written as a Final Assignment for the Food Safety Litigation course at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville and was selected by the professors as one of the top essays in the class. The course is taught by attorneys Denis Stearns and Bill Marler.

By Tami Kelley

When my daughter was pregnant with her third child, she suddenly became very sick. Her stomach was badly hurting, and she was constantly nauseous to the point of not being able to keep anything down. When she went to the emergency room, she was blown off as if she was simply exaggerating or was perhaps just looking for pain medication.

A week later, after being able to get in with her regular doctor, it was finally discovered she had a salmonella infection. Once treated for that, she got better pretty quickly, and everything appeared to be fine with her and the baby.

When it was time for her to go into the hospital for her scheduled c-section, it was discovered that the baby was in distress. She was rushed into the operating room even quicker than planned. I was with my daughter in the operating room when the baby was born. The baby was purple and not breathing. A pediatrician and many nurses gathered around her, and I watched as they worked on her and tried to get her to breathe.

She finally made a little noise, and I thought things were going to be okay. But I watched the doctor shaking her head no. I watched them intubate that tiny baby. They then rushed her out of the room. Nobody knew anything else for hours. All available doctors and nurses in that labor and delivery unit at that hospital were busy trying to save my granddaughter’s life.

She had not been getting enough oxygen for at least days before the scheduled c-section. This lack of oxygen had caused her so much distress that she had a bowel movement in the womb before birth, which then caused her to aspirate that meconium into her lungs. They were having difficulty with the intubation because the tubes kept getting filled up with the sticky meconium.

She had to be intubated three times within two hours. When we were finally told this, we were also told she was being sent to the NICU at the children’s hospital, and someone from there was on their way to transport her. Everything was a blur.

We had not even had a chance to see her except for those scary moments in the operating room. When someone from children’s hospital arrived, we were told she was being treated for a traumatic brain injury and was being cooled to help stop damage to her brain.

We were able to see her for a few minutes as they were wheeling her down the hallway in the incubator to leave to be transported to children’s hospital.

She had repeated seizures most of that night. She had to be heavily sedated and was also given plasma. My daughter was allowed to discharge from the hospital the next day so that she could be with her baby, so we were finally all able to make the trip to the children’s hospital.

When we got there, nobody was allowed to hold her. We could only put our hands into the tiny NICU bed to touch her. She was on a ventilator and still had monitors on her head to watch for seizure activity. There were wires everywhere, and we were all scared. Just a few days later, her condition was even worse. Instead of the doctors saying we were going day by day, we were now going minute by minute.

We were told if she did make it, she was expected to have a very long stay in NICU. At this point, nobody was even allowed to touch her. Nurses were instructed to do what they had to do as quickly as possible so that she had the least amount of stimulation as possible. Her bed was surrounded by curtains to keep out extra light. Her organs were starting to fail, her tiny body was bloated, and she was completely reliant on the ventilator.

Miraculously, she started improving. She was needing a little less help from the ventilator each day and was doing more of the breathing on her own. When she was nine days old, her parents finally got to hold her for the first time. She still remained in NICU for another three weeks, but everyone was surprised she was suddenly improving so much.

While going through that time in NICU, tests discovered that the lack of oxygen before and during birth caused brain damage. Doctors couldn’t tell my daughter and son-in-law what this would mean for their baby as she grew up. Basically, they were told they would just have to wait and see what she could and couldn’t do. For the first month after leaving the NICU, my daughter was extremely scared that her baby wouldn’t be able to see or hear. It appeared she was not responding to external stimuli.

When she was just 2 and a half months old, she was given a hearing test, and it was discovered she had hearing loss. She was fitted for hearing aids. As she got older, it still didn’t seem that she was responding normally to things around her. However, tests showed she could now probably hear because of the hearing aids, but she had severe developmental delays that kept her from responding accordingly for a child her age.

For the first year of her life, she was abnormally quiet. She rarely made noise and never made any of the normal baby babbling sounds. After she was a little over a year old, she finally started making some of those baby noises. She had to be held to be able to sit up, but she finally started interacting more with people.

At about 18 months old, she could sit in a chair meant for 6 month old babies, and she started showing some interest in toys. She couldn’t roll over on her own until she was close to 2 years old. Pretty quickly after that, she started learning to sit up on her own. Another MRI showed diffused brain damage, and at 2 years old, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. A few months after this diagnosis, she started doing her own version of “crawling” to get around.

This little girl is now almost 3 years old. She still cannot walk on her own and possibly never will. She is attempting to learn to walk with a special walker for tiny kids, but her legs are not very strong and her feet turn in when she tries. She is being fitted with special braces for her legs to help her. She is now much more verbal. Most of what she says is incomprehensible, but she is starting to learn some words. It is so adorable when she says “love you” or “thank you.”

She is always such a happy baby. She is almost always laughing. She loves her sisters, and she tries so hard to follow them and do what they are doing. She loves to give kisses. We don’t know what her life will look like going forward, but we are so thankful for her. We also know that she is very determined, and we are sure she is going to continue to fight to do as much as she possibly can. 

We cannot be sure the salmonella caused any of this. We will probably never know for sure what caused it. The placenta was tested and was even sent to a hospital in another state to try to determine what happened to damage it. However, nothing unusual has been found.

Maybe it was the salmonella during her pregnancy that damaged the placenta and caused all of this. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it would have just happened anyway. Even if it could be conclusively determined that it was the salmonella, it wouldn’t change anything at this point because we would have no way of knowing what caused the salmonella infection in the first place.

Was it something not cooked properly at her home? Was it on something that didn’t need to be cooked? As consumers, the majority of us blindly put a lot of faith into the government and assume there are food safety protocols in place that are assuring nothing unsafe is in our food. Meanwhile, one small event of foodborne illness can potentially change a life forever.

Tami Kelley

About the author: Tami Kelley is a student pursuing a LL.M. in Agriculture and Food Law at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville. She received her J.D. from the University of Arkansas in 2007 and her B.S. in psychology from Arkansas State University in 2001. Tami was a stay-at-home mom for many years and returned to law after becoming an empty nester. She is planning to graduate in August and is currently exploring possible opportunities.

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