What We Learned About E. Coli

blue hexagon with E. Coli strains and "What We Learned About E. Coli" in text with MMC logo

Three years ago, our daughter was sick. Really sick.

It started like the typical stomach flu with nausea and vomiting. But when it didn’t spread to anyone else in our house, I began to think it must be food poisoning. After a few days, she started to feel a bit better…then terribly worse. Stomach cramping and diarrhea would come in waves. Hot and cold spells, too.

As I sat in the doctor’s office with her, I thought of all the gastrointestinal illnesses I knew, both from raising kids and working in healthcare. We had our share of stomach bugs go around our house, especially when all four kids were tiny. And I had been through norovirus and C. diff myself after contracting them from my patients.

But this was different.

The physician’s assistant sent us home with instructions to keep my daughter hydrated since she was fairly sure it was just a virus that needed to run its course. But nothing stayed down. Nothing. So less than 24-hours later, I carried our daughter into the ER and watched as the nurses desperately searched for a vein to run much needed fluids into my girl’s body that was doubled-up in cramps and chills.

girl laying in hospital bed
resting and waiting for lab results

X-rays. An ultrasound. A CT scan. All trying to find the source of the pain. All thankfully ruling out appendicitis but showing distended large and small intestines, fluid accumulation, and (possibly) a mass.

And then we took an ambulance ride from our rural community to the Children’s Hospital in Omaha, which was 150 miles away. My daughter doesn’t remember much of that day. She slept deeply during the ride down the interstate thanks to the IVs. I held her hand and tried to rest myself as we zipped along.

Finally, later that day, the lab report came back from Children’s hospital: Shiga toxin-producing E.coli.

It was such a relief and such a surprise.

E. coli? In October?

Wasn’t that in the news over the summer? In lettuce or strawberries or something?

Didn’t that come from undercooked meat? Why did my daughter have it? She didn’t even like hamburgers!

We had some things to learn:

E. coli can be found everywhere. E. coli is always present in our intestinal tracts in small, non-harmful amounts, of course. But the life-threatening kind can literally lurk any place in the outside world: door knobs, bottoms of shoes, vegetables, fruits (especially watermelon and strawberries), boxed cake mix. Even dog and cat food have been linked to it.

The health department asked us to list every food our daughter had eaten or restaurant we had visited in the two weeks prior to her having symptoms. Unfortunately, they were not able to pinpoint from where she got it. But fortunately, no other person in our town or at her school got sick.

E. coli in children is not typically treated with medication. Past cases have shown that antibiotics can actually trigger systemic responses and kidney failure in kids. This disastrous bacteria did indeed need to run its course. So even though our daughter’s abdomen was distended, there was no mysterious mass – just her lymph nodes and immune system working overtime. All the internal inflammation and the fever were simply reactions of her body trying to fight the bacteria. The staff at Children’s made sure my girl was hydrated with IVs and comfortable with anti-nausea tablets as she rode out the symptoms.

girl in hospital bed playing on iPad
playing games to pass the time

The people who work in pediatrics are absolutely incredible.

From the nurses to the CNAs to the infectious disease specialists to the Rose Theater troupe, who donned gowns and gloves and masks to entertain my daughter with a comedy sketch, all were outstanding. I was well aware that many families on our floor were at the hospital for the long-haul. I noticed staff bringing extra bedding and meals to people who needed them, often before they even asked. My daughter also got fun treats like lemon lime soda whenever she wanted and all the DVDs she could ever wish to borrow. 

girl smiling in hospital bed holding a stuffed animalWe made it home just in time for Halloween and a little trick-or-treating. Our daughter spent another week at home resting (she and I both) and letting her digestive system recover before heading back to school. She spent just three days in the hospital instead of the six weeks the doctors had predicted. They were astounded. We were thankful. So very thankful.

Three long days from a tiny bacteria called E. coli, three years ago. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, but we learned a great deal about this bacteria during our experience.