One anxious mother called to say that her daughter had eaten the cheese three days ago and had been treated at a local hospital on Thursday for stomach pains. Now, the mother was feeling sick and wondered if she too should go to the doctor.
"Yes, right away," said Frances Weindler, a registered nurse at the nonprofit County Medical Assn.'s Regional Poison Information Center.
The poison center near MacArthur Park had been deluged with nearly a thousand inquiries since Thursday afternoon, when nervous callers found out that Jalisco, a Mexican-style cheese, contained a bacteria which apparently caused 29 deaths in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
The more than 70 calls per hour handled at the center by the three staff nurses was the largest number the poison center had ever fielded, according to spokesman David Zeitlin. On a busy day the center receives 200 calls from physicians, hospital emergency room nurses and consumers seeking a wide range of advice on poison antidotes.
Most of the callers Friday were Latino, and more than half said they had eaten the contaminated cheese and were feeling ill, the nurses said.
"Whether they were sick or got sick just thinking about it, we don't know," said Weindler, as she tried to grab a couple of forkfuls of chow mein from a cardboard container on her desk. The carton had been there for some time, but Weindler continually pushed it aside to make room for the hefty green medical book opened to a description of the bacterial infection in question-- Listeria monocytogenes.
A husband of a pregnant woman explained nervously that his wife had been having severe stomach pains for several days. She had eaten the cheese.
"Take her to the doctor," Weindler advised.
The nurses, who cannot give medical advice over the phone, were telling callers only the basic facts about the bacteria and the outbreak, and urging those who had eaten the cheese and felt ill to call their own doctors or health clinics. For the most part, the callers were very calm, she explained.
"Except the man who was upset because we didn't know who the attorney of the cheese company was," she added.
As the afternoon wore on, the voices of the three nurses seemed to meld into one. "How long ago did you eat the cheese?"
"No, the doctor has to tell you that."
"What symptoms do you have?"
"Throw the cheese away."
Those wishing to contact the poison center can call (213) 484-5151.