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Making the right sick call

A reporter felled by salmonella suspected the sushi place. He was surprised to learn the real source.

November 03, 2007|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

My eyes popped open sometime after midnight and I knew I was in trouble.

This was not a typical bellyache. It radiated from my gut. Whatever it was, I could feel it in my toes. I tossed about, trying helplessly to fall back asleep.

Beads of sweat rose suddenly on my forehead. A sharp chill hit me. My teeth clattered, my body shuddered.

Then things got bad.

I bolted for the bathroom.

I couldn't have known it at the time, but in those early Monday morning hours, dozens of other people across Los Angeles were suffering just like I was. By sunrise, some of us would wind up in hospital emergency rooms. We were men and women, old and young, linked only by our unfortunate decision to eat a certain meal at a certain place at a certain time.

An outbreak had begun.

Each year, food-borne bugs sicken an estimated 75 million people in the United States. In Los Angeles County, a small army of inspectors, doctors, specialized nurses and epidemiologists in the Department of Public Health watch over our 38,000 restaurants, markets and bakeries, hoping to catch problems with cleanliness and food handling before a meal gets contaminated.

When two or more people get sick from the same food -- an outbreak -- these are the experts who try to figure out where and when and how things went sideways. It happens 40 or so times a year in the county, sometimes at restaurants you would never expect.

I, of course, learned all this the hard way.

When a friend half-dragged me into Cedars-Sinai hospital about 3 a.m., I was a mess. The unrelenting bursts of diarrhea and vomiting dehydrated me to the point that I was having trouble walking and keeping my head upright.

After a half-hour wait, a nurse led me to a bed. With my frequent sprints for the bathroom, a fever that was hovering around 103.5 degrees and the knife fight going on in my gut, I was presenting the classic signs of food poisoning, but the doctor sent off vials of my blood to rule out anything more serious.

By the time I shuffled out seven hours later, I had had three liters of saline water (nearly 7 pounds) and some top-shelf antibiotics pumped into me. The doctor discharged me with a vague diagnosis of an infected intestinal tract and told me to call in a few days to see what the lab tests revealed, if anything.

But I was convinced I already knew.

The night before, three friends and I had eaten at a sushi restaurant in Venice. They were feeling fine, but I had hogged the only two pieces of shrimp on the plate. That must have been my undoing. Too tired to muster any anger in my voice, I had a friend call to yell at the restaurant's manager. I drifted off to sleep thinking the dirty place should be stripped of the "A" health-inspection report card hanging on the wall.

Two days later, about noon, my cellphone rang. A woman introduced herself as a nurse with the county health department. Cedars, she said, had reported my case. The tests had come back showing I had contracted salmonella.


This complicated my tidy theory.

In the dirty world of food-borne bacteria, salmonella looms large. First identified in the late 1800s by a veterinarian named Salmon, it commonly resides in the intestines and droppings of chickens, pigs and other animals. The bacteria can contaminate meat if the animal slaughtering process is sloppy. It can also infect chicken eggs. Food handlers at a processing plant or restaurant can also contaminate food if they are carrying the bacteria and do not wash their hands thoroughly after using the restroom.

About 1.2 million people in the United States are thought to get salmonella poisoning each year. That number would be exponentially higher if not for the fact that the bacteria are killed in cooking. All bets are off, however, if you eat a raw or undercooked dish.

Sometime between nine hours and four days after a tainted meal, the horrible symptoms begin as your body mounts its defense, trying to expel the bacteria however it can, releasing a fever-inducing onslaught of white blood cells. People in good enough health typically recover in a few days or weeks, although salmonella sometimes can be fatal in young children, the elderly or someone with a weakened immune system.

It is nearly unheard of to get salmonella from fish, so the diagnosis threw me. The sushi chef, I quickly decided, must have used the same knife to cut raw chicken and my sushi.

I offered up the filthy-knife theory to the nurse. She listened politely and took down the name of the restaurant, saying they would follow up. She was more concerned, however, about making sure I wasn't a high risk to transmit the bacterial infection to others. She seemed satisfied to hear that I didn't work around food or small children. We hung up.

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