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Girl Dies of Illness Related to E. coli

October 18, 2007

Jaycee Burgin, a 20-month-old Cocke County girl, died of an E. coli-related illness late Tuesday night at the University of Tennessee Medical Center.

Jaycee’s father, Joe Burgin, told the Newport Plain Talk newspaper that his daughter was likely contaminated by hamburger she ate at a Newport restaurant.

Sandy Halford, director of the East Tennessee Health Department, said an investigation gave the department no reason to suspect a restaurant as the source.

Even if restaurant hamburgers were the source of the bacteria that killed Jaycee, there would be little point in testing the meat served there, said Deputy State Epidemiologist Tim Jones.

“The meat the people ate isn’t there anymore,” he said.

Meanwhile, 4-year-old John McDonald, who contracted a similar illness, is in serious condition in UT’s pediatric intensive care unit. Surgeons removed part of the boy’s colon and lower bowel Tuesday night.

John’s sister, 18-month-old Michaela, and an unrelated and unidentified teenager, all of Knox County, also became ill. Michaela was still hospitalized Wednesday, though doctors believe she may be able to go home as soon as today. The teen has recovered.

DNA testing has shown that the toxin infecting John, his sister and the teen came from Cargill hamburger patties.

Thousands of pounds of frozen beef patties produced by Cargill and Topps food companies have been recalled from restaurants and supermarkets after serious illnesses, mostly affecting children, were reported in several states.

The same tests showed that the toxin in Jaycee’s system came from a separate unidentified source. “We don’t know (the source). We never will,” said Jones.

E. coli bacteria usually is linked to hamburger meat, according to Mary Carmen Malagon-Rogers, a pediatric nephrologist who treated Jaycee, John and Michaela.

E. coli is killed through thorough cooking, but many people become infected when the toxin is ingested via unwashed hands, utensils, serving plates or countertops, she said.

The McDonalds said they cooked their hamburger Sept. 29. By Oct. 2, John was beginning to have diarrhea and cramping. The next day he was vomiting, and blood in his diarrhea alarmed his parents. He was treated and released for dehydration from East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, which began testing for E. coli.

As their conditions worsened, John, Michaela and Jaycee all were hospitalized at UT Medical Center.

On Tuesday, John had a temperature of 103 and severe abdominal pain, the boy’s father, Jim McDonald, said.

Surgeons opened John’s abdomen and found it flooded with fecal matter from a ruptured bowel, leading to widespread infection, the father said. They removed part of his colon and lower bowel and performed a colostomy to bypass his lower digestive tract.

Just as the boy came out of surgery, about 11 p.m. Tuesday, McDonald said he and his family learned that Jaycee had died. Her family members were crying and distraught, he said. “It was a really rough evening, but not as rough for us as for others,” McDonald said.

As of late Wednesday night, John was on a respirator, receiving intravenous nutrition and being medicated for severe pain.

Beneath the bandages, bags, tubes and wires, the wheeze of the respirator, and the beep of monitors, it’s hard to see the healthy boy who less than two weeks ago was chattering endlessly about his beloved rockets and airplanes. “He loves anything that flies,” said McDonald, whose wife, Georgia, is expecting their fourth child, a son, due today.

McDonald also spent Wednesday evening at the hospital signing closing documents on a new home the family will be moving into.

McDonald and his wife say they have nothing but the highest praise for the staff at UT Medical Center, as well as Jim McDonald’s coworkers at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge.

In three hours Wednesday, coworkers donated six weeks of vacation time to the family, allowing McDonald to continue receiving a paycheck while away from work. He would have used up all his available leave time beginning today, he said.

Malagon-Rogers said she sees three or four cases a year of serious illness related to the toxin E. coli. Jaycee is only the second patient she’s lost to the disease in 17 years, she said. Though cases of poisoning have not increased in recent years, neither have they decreased, Malagon-Rogers said. She explained that the disease caused by a virulent form of E. coli toxin blocks blood vessels, depriving vital organs of blood and oxygen.

Some children are much more sensitive to the toxin than others. The McDonald boy is more sensitive than his sister, while Jaycee was extremely sensitive to the toxin, she said. Funeral arrangements are not yet final for Jaycee. Manes Funeral Home is in charge.