Death to Bacteria Haunting - The August Chronicle - January 23, 1999

By: Tom Corwin
The August Chronicle
January 23, 1999

Sometimes at night, Russell Rachels puts his Boston bulldog into the car and drives off to see his wife.

The dog, Sassy, seems to know the spot where her owner rests now at Hillcrest cemetery. And in the quiet dark, Mr. Rachels talks to his wife, Jesse Elizabeth Rachels.

"We talk about Sassy and I tell her I love her," Mr. Rachels said, his voice cracking as his hand sneaks up under his glasses to wipe away tears. “I tell her about why she had to leave with this Listeria."

Mrs. Rachels, 68, died Nov. 21 at Medical College of Georgia Hospital from a foodborne bacteria called Listeria monocytogenes. But it wasn't unitl month later that health officials began piecing together a nationwide outbreak of a particularly deadly strain of Listeria that was traced back to a hot dog manufacturing plant in Zeeland, Mich. So far, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 14 people have died and 67 have been sickened by that particular Listeria strain, including one nonfatal case in Georgia. But an attorney who is suing the hot dog maker and parent company Sara Lee said there are many deaths from the outbreak that have gone unreported.

Now, the Rachels family is trying to find out if Mrs. Rachels is also one of the victims of the outbreak.

"You hear about this in other places, but you just don't think it's happening in your town," said daughter-in-law Marty Rachels.

The ordeal began with a headache on the afternoon of Nov. 10.

"She complained of a headache and she'd taken some Tylenol," Mr. Rachels said. She went to lie down in her bed. " I went down there an hour later she said she felt better but her stomach was torn up," Mr. Rachels said.

She also had bad diarrhea. When Mr. Rachels went back to check on her an hour and a half later, she was pale and wouldn't respond. He called his daughter-in-law, who thought at first it might be the flu.

"There was a flu bug going around. A real bad one.," Mrs. Rachels said.

But when she heard her mother-in-law was getting worse, she rushed over and the two got the stricken woman to the emergency room at MCG at about 11 p.m. And it was clear she was suffering.

"She didn't know anything, she didn't know anything and then she couldn't talk," Mr. Rachels said. "It was like she was in different world."

Doctors at first thought she was dehydrated, then that she had suffered a stroke, as she had years before. Throughout the night they waited as doctors debated moving her up to intensive care.

"They kept taking blood tests, trying to find out what it was," Mrs. Rachels said. "They didn't know any more that morning than they did that night."

After being told they could go home for a couple hours while she was transferred up to intensive care, they left briefly. And then her heart stopped.

"I guess she went into septic shock while we were gone," Mrs. Rachels said. Doctors were able to revive her but later she went into congestive heart failure and had to have a device to help her heart pump and was put on a ventilator.

When they finally got into intensive care to see her, she was unconscious but Mr. Rachels believes she knew he was there, especially when he talked to her about Sassy.

"That was her baby; they were as close as a mama and her child," Mr. Rachels said.