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A year later, 'heroic' E. coli survivor still battling

By Val Willingham, CNN
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E. coli victim struggles a year later
  • E. coli survivor still in rehab, battling to reclaim life
  • Las Vegas woman ate cookie dough, endured coma, seizures, organ failure
  • CDC: 76,000 people get E. coli 0157 annually. About 2,500 are hospitalized; 50 to 100 die
  • Patient must relearn to walk, tell time, remember dates and use her fingers

San Francisco, California (CNN) -- It was prom night, May 2009, and Linda Rivera of Las Vegas, Nevada, was making goodies for her twin sons' party.

Breaking out a tub of cookie dough, she nibbled on a couple of bites as she portioned scoop after scoop onto the baking sheet. She never thought much about it. She had made cookies from refrigerated cookie dough a dozen times before.

The party went off without a snag. And Linda went on with life. But two days later, she began to feel sick -- really sick.

"I felt like I had the cold, the flu, something like that " she said. "It seemed like it would pass but I started throwing up. I even had blood in my stool."

It got so bad, her husband, Richard, took her to the hospital. Physicians in the emergency room diagnosed irritable bowel syndrome and sent her home. But she didn't get better. Her husband knew something was wrong. "She was vomiting every five minutes."

She told him, "If I have to go through this one more day, I will die," he said.

Two days later, Linda Rivera was rushed back to the hospital. She was dehydrated, weak and could barely walk. After more tests, doctors told Richard Rivera that his wife had contracted E. coli and that it was destroying her colon. They moved her to the Intensive Care Unit.

"E. coli -- I heard of it but I didn't really know much about it. They kept her in a doctor's-induced coma for 10 to 12 days. But she was strong. We played the Beach Boys' 'Kokomo,' and she would move her foot and mouth to the words during the coma, so we knew she was there," said Richard Rivera.

Each year about 76,000 people get Linda Rivera's strain of bacteria -- E. coli O157-- according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 2,500 are hospitalized and 50 to 100 people die from it each year. E. coli O157 lives in the colon and feces of animals and humans. In certain situations, it can taint food, particularly raw meat and vegetables. Although salmonella kills more people than E. coli, because more people get it, the effects of E. coli, according to health experts, are much more severe. Ingest a strong strain of it, doctors say, and it can shut down your entire body.

A couple of bites of cookie dough. That's all it took.
--Linda Rivera, E. coli survivor

Although Linda Rivera came out of her coma within two weeks, it was only the beginning. She'd had part of her colon removed before she fell unconscious. She had multiple seizures and her liver and kidneys stopped functioning.

"After she came out of her coma she started to respond more," her husband said.

"But then she went into cardiac arrest and she started to swell up. They had to do emergency dialysis. They pulled off about 45 pounds of fluid in a three-day period. That was pretty scary."

Several times clergy were called to Linda's bedside, but the E. coli didn't win.

"By Christmas I thought she would be home. She was actually eating. In January she got worse, but she came back from that."

What caused this once-vibrant woman to become infected with E. coli? Nevada public health officials tried to pinpoint the problem. Did the family eat bad meat, tainted vegetables, strawberries? All those came back negative, until someone remembered a cookie dough recall due to E. coli contamination.

"A couple of bites of cookie dough," Linda Rivers said. "That's all it took."

In June 2009, Nestle USA recalled all its refrigerated and prepackaged cookie dough products because many were tainted with E. coli bacteria. At least 69 people from 30 states reportedly suffered from E. coli food poisoning. Nine of those cases resulted in hemolytic uremic syndrome, a severe form of food poisoning associated with kidney failure. Linda was one of them. It's believed the wheat used in the dough was contaminated. The company has since changed the formula for its famous cookie dough.

I have been doing this a long time and I don't think I have seen anyone this ill make it.
--Bill Marler, attorney

"I have been doing this a long time and I don't think I have seen anyone this ill make it," said the Riveras' attorney, Bill Marler, who has handled hundreds of cases involving foodborne illness.

"She has basically missed out on a year of [her children's] lives. It is just devastating."

Linda is still suffering from the illness, more than a year later. For 12 months she was in and out of area hospitals in Las Vegas. She was confined to a hospital bed, unable to work, unable to talk, unable to walk.

She moved to California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, California, two months ago, where she remains today.

Her physician, Dr. Phillip O'Keefe, said he wasn't surprised her body shut down.

"It causes multisystem disease. I suspect it was the bad luck of the draw in respect to how much toxin she got."

Now Linda's days are filled with different forms of therapy. She must learn to walk, tell time, remember dates and use her fingers. She still gets around in a wheelchair, but doctors say she is making great progress.

"Linda has improved since she has been here," said O'Keefe. "Her kidney function is better. She still has some problem with her liver. Her ability to deal with the pain and the problems has really been heroic," he said.

Richard Rivera has been by Linda's side at every step. It's been a "year of hell," he said.

I will keep trying. I want to survive. I don't want this horrible disease to win.
--Linda Rivera, E. coli survivor

Linda Rivera has missed her twin sons' high school graduation and the birth of her new grandchild, Ellie j.

But she continues to fight, hoping not to miss more precious moments. "I will keep trying. I want to survive," she said.

"I don't want this horrible disease to win. I want the rest of the world to know about this illness."

"It steals your life away," said her husband.

"She's missed so much. No family should have to go through this. Linda is probably the most giving, cheerful and optimistic woman in the world. To see what this had done to her has just torn me apart."

Through it all, Linda Rivera remains devoted to her family. "I have a wonderful family, no matter what the future brings, we have each other."

Richard Rivera agrees.

"Till death do us part," he said.

If she's forced to be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life, he said, "I will get one too and race down the street with her."