For Listeria victims, sudden turns for the worse

Donna Kay Wells Lloyd and her brother Clarence William Wells look out the window as photographs of their father, Clarence Wells, are displayed Friday, Sept. 30, 2011 in Catonsville, Md. Donna Kay Wells Lloyd says her father, Clarence Wells, died Aug. 31 and health officials later told the family that he had the same Listeria strain as the nationwide outbreak traced to Colorado cantaloupe.

Donna Kay Wells Lloyd and her brother Clarence William Wells look out the window as photographs of their father, Clarence Wells, are displayed Friday, Sept. 30, 2011 in Catonsville, Md. Donna Kay Wells Lloyd says her father, Clarence Wells, died Aug. 31 and health officials later told the family that he had the same Listeria strain as the nationwide outbreak traced to Colorado cantaloupe. Photo by The Associated Press.

DENVER (AP) — Charles Palmer is a hardy 71-year-old former Marine and Vietnam veteran who trains cockatiels to say "Semper Fi" and "Whatcha doin', man?"

He also loves fruit — and especially melon for lunch.

"He's never one to get sick," said his wife, Tammie.

The Colorado Springs man ate a cantaloupe that was purchased in mid-August, his wife said. Within several days, he was overcome by an excruciating headache. The next morning he was extremely weak and gripped by dry heaves, his wife recalled.

"I started slapping his face and saying, 'You've got to talk to me,' but he couldn't," she said.

She called 911. At the hospital, she said, he was diagnosed with the strain of Listeria blamed for a 19-state outbreak that has killed at least 15 and sickened at least 84.

Palmer's story is shared by many who one day led normal lives and the next suffered agonizing symptoms, even death, from a pathogen that particularly afflicts the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. It can incubate for as long as two months before sickness sets in.

Symptoms can include fever, muscle aches, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems.

Health officials don't identify victims by name, but The Associated Press has reached five families who have filed lawsuits saying a loved one was sickened by the strain of Listeria cited in the outbreak.

William Thomas Beach of Mustang, Okla., was a feisty, funny man who once got thrown out of a community center because he got into a fight over politics while playing dominoes, one of his six daughters said.

"Daddy hit him," Debbie Frederick recalled with a chuckle. "He took his politics very, very seriously."

During a doctor's visit on June 8, his 87th birthday, Beach announced: "Today is my birthday, and I want a sucker," Frederick said. The doctor's staff presented him with three suckers bound with a ribbon.

In late August, Beach fell and couldn't get up. His face was red and swollen and he had trouble breathing. He was hospitalized and sent home the next day when his breathing was under control, Frederick said.

"He was dancing in little circles with the nurse because he was so happy to be going home," she said.

On Sept. 1, his 85-year-old wife, Monette, found him unresponsive on the floor; he was taken back to the hospital and died that day. A few days later, Oklahoma and federal health officials linked his illness to the Listeria outbreak, Frederick said. He had been eating cantaloupe for weeks.

Herbert Stevens of the Denver suburb of Littleton, Colo., is a retired engineer for the U.S. Geological Survey. At 84, he could walk unassisted and get out with his wife to enjoy a concert, despite having had heart surgery 21 years ago and being on oxygen.

On Aug. 22, about 10 days after eating cantaloupe from a local grocery store, Stevens got weak and nauseous. He had tremors and chills, said his daughter, Jeni Exley. At the hospital, his temperature was 102.7 and he was immediately put on antibiotics.

A month later, he's in a skilled nursing center. His spirits are good, although he's weak and sleeps a lot, Exley said.

It's too early to say what his prognosis is, his daughter said, but he may need a walker to get around and could lose much of his independence.

"How much can an 84-year-old man's strength come back after having a serious infection?" Exley said.

Clarence Douglas Wells of Catonsville, Md., was a retired Defense Department printer who liked to use pistachio nuts for poker chips when he played cards.

"And he was terrible at playing poker," his daughter Donna Wells Lloyd said with a laugh. "He didn't have a poker face."

Wells, an 87-year-old widower, lived with Lloyd and her husband in Catonsville, outside Baltimore. He was a quiet man with a wry sense of humor, his daughter said.

He was hospitalized Aug. 25 after he retained so much fluid that he gained about nine pounds in three days, Lloyd said. When she visited him, he didn't complain of discomfort, but she suspects he may have been holding back.

"He hated to be a burden on anybody," she said.

On Aug. 31, he took a turn for the worse. By the time Lloyd reached his room, he was intubated, and although he was sedated, he was tugging on the tube, trying to remove it. When he grew calmer, Lloyd dashed home to change clothes. Before she could leave her house, hospital staff called to say his heart had stopped and doctors were trying to revive him. He died that day.

State and local health officials told the family about two weeks later that Wells had died from the Listeria strain in the national outbreak, Lloyd said.

"I was horrified," she said, especially when she started calculating the odds. "I just couldn't believe that we could have gotten one out of, what, a million and a half cantaloupes?"

She said health officials haven't identified how her father contracted Listeria. He had bought a cantaloupe at a produce stand, she said.

Wells was a news junkie who kept on top of food safety issues, his daughter said, and he wouldn't have eaten cantaloupe if he had read about the outbreak.

"He dropped stuff from his diet right and left. He knew about everything," she said.

Sixty-five-year-old Juanita Gomez of Angleton, Texas, was shaking, vomiting and sweating when her daughter, Rosa, arrived at her parents' home the morning of Aug. 20, summoned by a phone call from her worried father.

"She looked like she was probably going to die," the daughter said. "She wouldn't respond to us. She looked right through us."

The family took her to a hospital, but she was sent home that day with instructions to take Motrin and Tylenol, Rosa said. The next night, someone from the hospital called Rosa and told her to bring her mother back if she had not improved.

Juanita Gomez, who already suffered from diabetes and is in the early stages of dementia, spent the next three days in the hospital, the daughter said. She was released Aug. 24, the day before her 66th birthday.

Over the next few days, public health officials told the family Juanita had the same strain of Listeria as the national outbreak.

She is back home, although she suffered from diarrhea for several weeks and lost 10 pounds from her 4-foot-9 frame, family member said. The experience has unnerved the family, Rosa Gomez said.

"We make sure we wash everything but Listeria is not something you can look at and see. It's really nerve-wracking," she said.

In Colorado Springs, Charles Palmer is still hospitalized, and though he can speak again, he's weak and sometimes confused.

"He thought we were in Arizona a day or two ago," his wife, Tammie, said.

She can still let loose a throaty, rumbling laugh when she relates her husband's quirks. But a month into the ordeal, doctors still can't tell her what the outcome will be, and she sometimes feels overwhelmed.

"I'm worn out," she said. "It's been a long haul. He's got a long way to go."

Palmer loved fruit, and some days his entire lunch might be melon, grapes or apples. About two weeks before he got sick, he ate half a cantaloupe. It was so juicy and sweet, his wife said, he ate the other half, too.

"We'll never eat cantaloupe again," she said. "Ever."


Associated Press writer Linda Stewart Ball contributed to this report from Dallas.

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