Why Your Food Isn't Safe

Kayla Boner celebrated her 14th birthday, on October 22, 2007, by getting her driver's permit. There was no school that day — the teachers had a special training session — and Kayla impatiently kept calling her mother at work ("like a hundred times," her mom, Dana, jokes) to remind her about the test that afternoon. "Kayla was a typical teenager," Dana recalls. "She talked on her cell phone too much and argued about her curfew." But she also was a good student, was involved in church activities, and played a sport every season — volleyball, basketball, softball. And she was an unusually thoughtful daughter. "She'd get home from school before I was back from work," says Dana, "and she'd make sure the house was totally clean, even the kitchen." What's more, Kayla always had fresh flowers in a vase on the table for her mom. "They might have been lilacs from the garden, or even just dandelions," says Dana, "but she knew how much I liked them."

After Kayla got her driver's permit that Monday afternoon, however, something odd happened: Instead of begging to get behind the wheel, she asked to go home because she didn't feel well. Her stomach hurt that evening, and she stayed home from school the next day. "I assumed she had the flu," says Dana. But Kayla's symptoms quickly turned serious. She developed bloody diarrhea early Wednesday morning and was admitted to the local hospital. The doctors thought she had C. difficile — a nasty bacterial infection — and treated her with antibiotics. Indeed, Kayla seemed to be getting better when suddenly, the following Monday, her kidneys shut down. "She needs to go on dialysis," the doctors told Dana and her husband, Rick; late that night, Kayla was transferred to Blank Children's Hospital in Des Moines, about 40 miles from their home in Monroe, IA. Dana rode in the ambulance and was relieved that Kayla was still talkative on the trip.

At the hospital, lab results from the end of the previous week finally came through, and the Boners learned what was actually making Kayla so sick: an E. coli infection that had led to hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). This devastating complication occurs when E. coli bacteria from contaminated food lodge in the digestive tract and churn out toxins that go on to shred red blood cells, clogging tiny blood vessels in the kidneys. Sick as she was, Kayla still worried about her mother. "She told me she was sorry," says Dana, who tried to reassure her daughter. "I said, 'Honey, it's OK. This is what mommies do.' "

Nothing seemed to help. Late Tuesday night, Kayla started dialysis. But by Wednesday, she was lethargic and confused, and then she had a seizure and had to be put on a ventilator. On Friday, November 2, she developed a racing heart and soaring blood pressure and had a series of small strokes that left her brain-dead. "Then we had to make the hardest decision of our lives," says Dana. "We had to let our little girl go."

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