A Langley woman whose mother died in November after contracting an E. coli infection at a South Surrey seniors’ facility hopes lessons can be learned from a tragedy she says should never have happened.
“There has to be some accountability,” said Kathy Jonah. “Things need to be changed.”
Madeline Jonah, 80, died Nov. 30 at Royal Columbian Hospital (RCH), after falling ill at Kiwanis Park Place two weeks before.
She was one of three residents who tested positive for the bacteria, and the only one who later died.
Fraser Health officials told Peace Arch News in December that the test results showing E. coli were reported to the authority Nov. 21, and linked to Kiwanis Park Place by way of victim addresses three days later. It was believed the trio were exposed at one of two group meals served between Nov. 8 and 14.
Kathy said she only learned about the bacteria’s role in her mother’s illness and hospitalization the day before she died – more than two weeks later – and only after confronting Kiwanis and public health officials with information she received from another Kiwanis resident.
It was during a hastily called family meeting at RCH that afternoon – Nov. 29 – that a doctor confirmed her mother had contracted E. coli 0157:H7, she said.
“I made him repeat it four times,” she said, noting that until that point, officials described it as “an undisclosed infection.”
Last week, Kathy received a copy of the discharge summary confirming the infection.
Fraser Health spokesman Roy Thorpe-Dorward said by email Friday that patient confidentiality prevents the health authority from confirming the cause of death. Such information is only released if there is “a related threat to public health that makes it necessary to publicize private patient information.
“Since the food service establishment is closed and there were no further cases identified, there is no risk to public health and no reason to release COD,” he writes.
He noted the source of the E. coli “is strongly suspected to be related to food handling and preparation practices relating to a Nov. 10 food service.”
As the meal program is no longer being offered at Kiwanis – it, along with two cooks, was suspended following the outbreak – there has been no need for further action by Fraser Health, Thorpe-Doward adds.
According to the World Health Organization, E. coli 0157:H7’s significance as a public health problem was recognized in 1982, following an outbreak in the U.S.
Often linked to improperly cooked ground meat, untreated water and raw milk, E. coli 0157:H7 is considered one of the more serious strains of the bacteria. It can cause severe cramping and bloody diarrhea, and can lead to life-threatening disease and even death. Children and the elderly are at greatest risk of complications; the latter due to less robust immune systems.
According to online inspection reports from the past three years, the Kiwanis meal program has previously been cited by Fraser Health for “non-critical violations.”
An Oct. 31 report notes three such violations: “frozen potentially hazardous food stored/displayed above -18 °C”; “premises not free of pests”; and, “food premises not maintained in a sanitary condition.” An April 4, 2011, report also notes three violations; the other four reports note one or two violations.
In each report, the program is given a “low” hazard rating.
Kathy said while she realizes the E. coli outbreak at Kiwanis wasn’t intentional, it speaks to problems she believes someone needs to take responsibility for.
Standards for food handling in seniors’ facilities need to improve, she said.
“It’s called proper food handling, trained personnel,” she said. “It’s time people stood up and said, ‘You know what? Seniors need to eat better.’”
Kathy said her mom endured excruciating pain in the two weeks before she died. Despite reports to the contrary, she said, her mother had no medical conditions that would have made her more susceptible to complications from the E. coli infection than any other 80-year-old. Her main risk factor was her age.
Kathy said she is further frustrated that no one associated with the facility’s operation has so much as offered condolences for her mom’s death. Her mother – a grandmother of five who was born and raised in Saskatchewan – had lived at the complex for 28 years, she said.
“She was a really nice person,” Kathy said. “I wouldn’t put my dog through what my dear little mother had to go through. And no one’s owning it. They haven’t even said, ‘We’re sorry.’”
Kiwanis Park Place is operated by Crescent Housing Society. Society president Randy Kohls could not be reached for comment, including regarding possible reinstatement of the shared-meal program, by Peace Arch News’ press deadline Wednesday.
Kathy said if steps aren’t taken to improve standards everywhere, a repeat of what her family just endured is inevitable.
“Without community pressure on fixing it, it’ll just continue on,” she said. “I just want somebody to own it, change it, start a conversation with somebody about seniors’ food.”