Listeriosis crisis: Wendy speaks to a survivor

Listeriosis crisis: Wendy speaks to a survivor

This time last week, the listeriosis crisis wasn’t resonating with many South Africans - millions were buying and consuming polony and other ready-to-eat cold meats as usual.

Eileen Drever (seated) with her sister Rose Andrew
Eileen Drever (seated) with her sister,Rose Andrew - Supplied

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All that changed on Sunday with the Health Minister’s announcement that the outbreak source was an Enterprise factory.

Only four products were part of the official recall - Enterprise colony, frankfurters and russians, and Rainbow chicken polony but Enterprise wisely withdraw its entire ready-to-eat range and thanks to the minister’s advice that consumers avoid all cold meat, you can barely give the stuff away at the moment.

Polony, in particular, has became the most feared, mocked and hated of all foods.

Eileen Drever's story of survival 

Last we heard - 948 people had found to have listeriosis, that’s since last January, and 180 of them died.

Eileen Drever was very nearly one of them.

The 75-year-old widow, who lives in the Flame Lily retirement village in Queensburgh, hadn’t 100% recovered from her hip replacement operation from last August but she was active and lived independently in her own apartment. She was still driving when the disease struck her down.

She spent a very happy Christmas Day with her younger sister Rose and her family, but three days later, her life changed dramatically.

Within hours she went from the early listeriosis symptoms - flu like feverishness and aching muscles - to full-blown confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions. 

Rose - who was visiting an ill relative on that morning of December 28 - she got some very confused Whatsapp messages from Eileen. Immediately knew something was very wrong she raced to Eileen’s flat.

The door was open and inside she found a sister she barely recognised. 

"I’ve never seen her in a state like that - she was talking gibberish, and she had these very big starey eyes.”

By the time paramedics arrived, her body was stiff and she had to be forced down into a wheelchair. When she arrived at Westville Hospital, a doctor initially thought she’d suffered a “mini stroke” but a brain scan revealed that she hadn’t. 

She had a succession of seizures before a lumbar puncture confirmed she had listeriosis.

Eileen spent 21 days in the hospital’s ICU, her worried family constantly at her bedside.

“With the very strong antibiotic that she was on, she became terribly confused,” Rose says. "At times she knew who we were; she could name every one of us around her bedside, but there were other times when she was getting mixed up with daytime and night time. It was very, very traumatic to see her like that.”

It was two weeks before Eileen became conscious of her surroundings but she has no memory of falling ill and being rushed to hospital.

“I woke up and couldn't make out where I was at first,” she says. "I was told I was in a hospital but not told I was in ICU. I was just told I was in the hospital and then it was explained to me later what had actually happened.”

Eileen spent another two weeks in a general ward, having physiotherapy twice a day.

From there she was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital where she stayed for a month, and now, finally, she’s back in the retirement village but not in her flat; in the frail care facility.

“It’s had a bad impact,” Eileen says. "I have to have somebody to help me to eat because my shaking flicks the food off my spoon. So it’s a bit embarrassing. I’ve had to ask them to take me out of the main lounge and into the other dining room with the other frail residents.”

And walking is still a challenge, so she's confined to a wheelchair, most of the time.

“When I try to walk on my own, I fall often. So I have to have somebody walking with me or behind me. It’s been hard because I lik being able to get up and walk around on my own.”

She’s desperate to get back to her flat and worrying about how she’s going to pay the R10 000 a month for frail care as her medical aid is exhausted.

And she’s had to give up her car.

Rose still finds it hard to talk about what’s happened to her beloved sister.

“She was so independent. She spent Christmas Day with my family and we had a lovely day and then three days later this hit her.

"It’s really been hard - there have been times when I have gone home and cried my eyes out. It was very sad her to see her going down like that, but you know what, she’s come a long way and I’m just so grateful that she’s still around, when I hear the stories of the other people passing on.”

Rose wanted me to express her and the family’s deepest condolences to the families of those 180 people who have died from listeriosis in what’s been confirmed as the biggest outbreak of listeriosis in the world.

What did Eileen eat to make her ill?

Without any scientific evidence linking the listeria strain in her bodily fluids with that in a particular food - she and her family can only speculate. She doesn’t eat polony but she does eat ham and other cold meats. 

As for her prognosis, doctors told the family her recovery could take up to six months. It’s only been two and a half months since she fell ill so she could well reach her goal of living independently in her flat again.

We wish her all the best and will be checking on her progress.

*Being over 65, Eileen is in one of the high risk groups for listeriosis. Others are pregnant women, children under five, people with compromised immune systems - organ transplant recipients and those who are HIV positive or have cancer or diabetes.

The incubation period - the time from eating contaminated food to getting ill - is anything from three to 70 days and the death rate for listeriosis is usually around one in four - alarmingly high.

VERY IMPORTANT: While Listeria can survive in the fridge, it is killed by heat. That’s why it’s the ready-to-eat foods which pose the risk - they mostly aren’t heated or cooked before eating.

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