Answers sought in E. coli death

Family ties spinach to mother's illness despite lack of proof

September 24, 2006|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,sun reporter

HAGERSTOWN -- Until three weeks ago, the last time June E. Dunning had been in the hospital was in 1951, when she gave birth to her daughter, Corinne.

That changed Sept. 2 after Dunning, 86, ate spinach from a bag and became severely ill. She entered a hospital for the first time in her daughter's memory. She died battling an E. coli infection 11 days later.

Yesterday, standing in the living room of the Hagerstown house she shared with her mother, Corinne Swartz said that while evidence might never prove conclusively that Dunning was killed by the strain of bacteria that has sickened people nationwide in recent weeks, her family believes that her death was caused by eating contaminated spinach.

"It was E. coli, there's no question about that," Swartz said at a news conference arranged by her husband, Warren Swartz. "She ate spinach all the time; it was a weekly thing for her."

They also expressed concern that the public could have been warned earlier that contaminated spinach had sickened people in Maryland.

In the week before she became sick, Dunning ate fresh bagged spinach four times, twice in a salad and twice steamed, they said. On Sept. 1, she ate leftover steamed spinach that had been cooked two days earlier and stored in the refrigerator. That night she came down with severe diarrhea and took Pepto-Bismol to calm her stomach -- something that can exacerbate an E. coli infection, her family was later told.

By all accounts, Dunning, who was born in England and married an American soldier during World War II, was a reserved and independent-minded woman. Despite the severity of the symptoms, she did not wake anybody for help. Later in the morning, however, the symptoms worsened, and Dunning's daughter took her to a hospital.

At the hospital, doctors determined Dunning was suffering from an E. coli infection. After a couple of days, her condition worsened, and doctors had to remove part of her damaged colon.

After the surgery, Dunning remained in a coma for the rest of the week, then woke up briefly. Her respirator prevented her from talking, but she managed to convey one last message: "She blew me a kiss," her daughter said.

Soon after, Dunning slipped back into a coma. She died Sept. 13.

The family said Dunning had been active and healthy. "She always tried to eat real healthy and keep her cholesterol down," her daughter said. "She had almost turned into a vegetarian; she ate a lot of vegetables."

Swartz said her mother moved to the United States after marrying her father, Arthur Gordon Dunning. After he retired from the Army as a master sergeant, the couple moved to Hagerstown. They had two children -- Swartz and a son, Michael, who lives in Korea. Dunning's husband died in 1996.

Neighbors said they often saw her walking the family's 9-year-old Yorkshire terrier, Trixie. She grew flowers next to a picket fence in the family's well-manicured yard. She also had a passion for bingo.

Her family decided to go to their local newspaper, the Hagerstown Herald-Mail, last week when they realized there was a nationwide outbreak of E. coli but that nothing was being reported about E. coli cases linked to spinach in Maryland.

"There was no indication that there was a problem yet," said Warren Swartz. "I went to the local paper thinking I was just going to make this a local issue."

On Friday, the paper reported the possible link between Dunning's death and contaminated spinach. That afternoon, officials at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene held a news conference in Baltimore to announce that they had linked three cases of children infected with E. coli in Maryland with the strain of bacteria implicated in the outbreak nationwide. They said they were investigating the death of "an elderly resident," but would not confirm it was Dunning's death they were looking into.

They said problems with the tissue samples taken from the elderly woman might prevent them from connecting her death to spinach.

Yesterday, Dunning's son-in-law questioned why the health officials waited until Friday to reveal the spinach-related E. coli cases in Maryland. "I don't know what their intentions were," he said. "They very well may have intended on doing that; it just seemed a coincidence."

At Friday's news conference, the officials said they did not receive confirmation that DNA testing had linked E. coli cases in Maryland to the nationwide outbreak until late Thursday.

June Dunning's family hopes the attention her death is receiving will help prevent other people from becoming sick.

"I just don't want anybody else to have to go through what we did with my mother," Corinne Swartz said. "It's not a good death, I can tell you."

chris.emery@baltsun.com

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