A heartbreaking lawsuit: Surviving cancer, done in by salmonella

  • Article by: DAVID SHAFFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 28, 2009 - 2:51 PM

The family of a Perham, Minn., woman who died of a salmonella infection is suing a peanut butter manufacturer and asking for safer food.

Shirley Mae Almer seemed to be beating the odds. The 72-year-old woman from Perham, Minn., had survived lung cancer surgery and radiation therapy on a brain tumor. Her family planned to bring her home from a Brainerd nursing home for Christmas.

Instead, she died Dec. 21, and her children and grandchildren spent the holidays in grief.

They soon got a second shock. Minnesota health investigators discovered that the nursing home's peanut butter was tainted by a strain of salmonella that has been making people sick across the country.

Almer's daughter Ginger Lorentz, of Brainerd, said she served her mother peanut butter toast a week before she died. She said she prepared it in the nursing home, using the facility's peanut butter.

"It seemed so pointless -- with all the battles she overcame -- to have a piece of peanut butter toast take her," Lorentz said.

Now, 503 people in 43 states have been infected by salmonella linked by DNA fingerprinting to peanut butter produced in a Georgia plant. Eight people have died, including two other Minnesota nursing home residents. About 200 products containing suspect peanut butter have been recalled. Among the first recalled were 5-gallon peanut butter containers like those sold to the Good Samaritan Society-Bethany nursing home, where Almer got infected.

Lorentz said she doesn't blame herself or the nursing home. The family on Monday sued the manufacturer, Peanut Corp. of America, of Lynchburg, Va., and the distributor, King Nut Co. of Solon, Ohio., alleging negligence, said Fred Pritzker, a Minneapolis attorney representing the family.

Lorentz, her brother Jeff Almer of Savage and sister Vickie Hammes of Oakdale said in an interview that they believe their mother would be alive if she hadn't eaten tainted peanut butter.

Salmonella typically causes abdominal pain, nausea -- symptoms they say their mother suffered -- diarrhea and fever. The infection can be fatal in young, elderly or frail people.

"I am just sick of hearing about contaminated food, and now it hurts in the most personal way," Jeff Almer said.

A struggle back to health

Shirley Almer was a mother of five and businesswoman who was president of the family's bowling alley in Wadena, and later helped open another family-owned alley in Brainerd. She retired five years ago and was found to have lung cancer in 2007, and her children worried. Yet her surgery at the University of Minnesota Medical Center was pronounced a success, they said. In June she took a Florida vacation with her two sons, two daughters and four grandchildren.

When she returned from the trip, she suffered a seizure that sent her back to the U, where doctors treated a brain tumor with radiation. She spent two months in the hospital, and for a time she couldn't move some limbs.

"She got strong, she regained the use of all those limbs. They got to be normal," Jeff Almer said.

By October, she moved in with her daughter in Brainerd and spent weekends at her home in Perham. Then came another setback, a urinary tract infection that sent her to a transitional unit in Good Samaritan just after Thanksgiving. It was meant to be temporary, to regain strength, her family said.

"So we would bring her snacks and cookies and things like that," said Lorentz. "They had a little kitchenette in her wing and she liked peanut butter toast. So I made her peanut butter toast for two days in a row."

The family had planned to take her home Dec. 22. Yet the day before that, she became gravely ill.

"It went really fast," said Hammes, who visited her mother in a Brainerd hospital where she had been transferred. "She was not really coherent. I know she heard us. She could squeeze my hands."

By then, the state Health Department was searching for clues to a salmonella outbreak that had struck elsewhere in the country and turned up in Minnesota in late November. During such outbreaks, state investigators routinely perform specialized tests on stool samples from sick people and interview victims or relatives about what they've been eating.

A phone call from the state

Nine days after her mother died, Lorentz said she got a call from a state epidemiologist. It was the first time that she had heard that her mother had been tested for salmonella and found to be infected with the strain afflicting people around the country. "She asked about chicken, and she asked about peanut butter," said Lorentz. "I said, 'Yes, I used to make her peanut butter toast.'"

Dr. Kirk Smith, who heads the department's foodborne disease investigative unit, said identifying victims at a long-term care facility -- as a policy, the department doesn't identify institutions or victims by name -- and testing its peanut butter were the keys to identifying the source of the outbreak. A series of recalls soon began, first of the bulk peanut butter and then of products made from it, including cookies, crackers, cereal, candy, ice cream and pet food.

Federal officials say the contamination was traced back to the Peanut Corp. of America processing plant in Blakely, Ga., which was shut down.

None of this happened in time to help Clifford Tousignant, 78, who died Jan. 12 in another Brainerd nursing home operated the Good Samaritan Society, a nonprofit based in Sioux Falls, S.D. His son, Marshall Tousignant, said he also served his father peanut butter at night. His father, already weakened by diabetes, suffered continuous diarrhea for more than two weeks before he died, and tests linked his infection to the salmonella outbreak, his son said.

So far, the Almer family is the first in Minnesota to announce a lawsuit, but other cases are expected. One suit has been filed in Georgia by a Vermont couple whose 7-year-old son was sickened.

George Clarke, spokesman for Peanut Corp. of America, said the company had not seen the Almer family suit, filed in Hennepin County District Court, and had no comment.

Hammes said the government needs to take notice.

"I really believe there needs to be reforms, and speaking out is the best way to do it," she said. "I know my mom would be proud of what we are doing right now."

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090

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