A severe bacterial E. coli infection that killed a 4-year-old girl in west central Minnesota four years ago has now played a role in the death of her mother.
Karen Odens died at age 39 on July 14 from prolonged complications of an E. coli infection she contracted while providing extensive care in 2014 for her daughter, Sophia, her father said.
Odens was inseparable from her daughter — fishing off the dock at their home, playing My Little Pony, dressing up together for Halloween, said her father, Ed Welke.
She struggled with post-traumatic stress following Sophia’s death, Welke said, but also was hospitalized 30 times due to complications from her own infection.
“The last four years have been really pretty rough,” he said, “and the strange thing is, we never could figure out what Sophia ate” that caused the initial infection of the harsh E. coli O157 strain.
Welke said his family hopes that others will learn from the tragedy by washing their produce thoroughly, fully cooking meat and taking other precautions to prevent foodborne infections.
E. coli outbreaks occur every year in Minnesota, mostly as a result of eating food contaminated with the bacteria. Nine confirmed outbreaks in 2015 were traced to restaurants, a day-care center and even a county fair, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. This year, 12 E. coli infections and two deaths in Minnesota have been traced to a national outbreak involving contaminated romaine lettuce grown in the southwestern United States.
Most cases produce severe stomach cramps and diarrhea. But it can also produce a condition known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can lead to life-threatening kidney problems.
The infection can be spread by person-to-person contact, especially in child-care facilities and situations where caregivers or others come in contact with the fecal matter of people who are infected, said Carlota Medus, an epidemiologist supervisor in the health department’s foodborne diseases unit.
Already this year, the state has ordered more than a dozen children to stay home from child-care facilities until their risks of spreading E. coli have passed.
“When the public thinks about E. coli, they often think about ground beef,” Medus said. “But [person-to-person transmission] absolutely is a risk. Stool to hand to mouth or stool to surface to hand to mouth — any variation on that theme.”
Underlying health conditions increase the risks of complications or deaths from E. coli infections, Medus said.
Odens earned a doctorate in pharmacy from North Dakota State University and worked for a decade at Pelican Drug in Pelican Rapids, Minn., where she became a trusted resource for the community’s growing Somali immigrant population.
“I want people to remember how caring she was,” her father said. “Men and women would come in and ask for Karen.”
Complications from her own illness eventually forced Odens to give up her job. She suffered swings of dangerously high blood pressure followed by equally hazardous low levels that would disrupt her kidneys. Eventually, kidney failure caused her to need dialysis.
According to her obituary, Odens is survived by her spouse, Eric, and her son, Oliver. A funeral service will be held Saturday in Detroit Lakes.