My Son Nearly Died of Salmonella
The news was always something I covered, not lived, until my toddler ate a packet of tainted peanut butter crackers.
As President Obama met the press, one Washington reporter sat terrified in D.C.’s Children’s Hospital, his toddler critically ill after eating a packet of tainted peanut butter crackers. A reporter’s story of what happens when the news hits home.
President Barack Obama’s first prime-time news conference played on a small television monitor above my son’s hospital bed, as the 24-pound toddler fought for his life.
As a Washington journalist, normally, I’d be itching to be there at the White House. But on that day, Obama’s words faded into the background as I looked at my 2-year-old son Isaiah, who was in serious condition after eating a packet of peanut butter crackers.
When we got the hospital, no one knew what was going on. ER doctors tried to figure out why his fever was spiking to 104 degrees and why his diaper was soiled with blood and mucus. Suspecting that something very violent had attacked our son’s tiny body, my wife, Taunya, had smartly kept some of Isaiah’s soiled diapers in the refrigerator and had taken them to Washington’s Children’s Hospital, where we learned that the source of my son’s tummy aches, fever and diarrhea was salmonella poisoning.
I had been skeptical when my wife first raised the possibility at the onset of the illness a week earlier. At a time when so many families are struggling to make ends meet, the peanut has remained that precious commodity perfected by George Washington Carver, a welcome staple in so many homes, including my own.
Thankfully, after numerous tests, the doctors figured it out in time, and my son is on the mend. But our family’s plight has given me a serious reality check. It is only because of God’s grace that I still have my little Isaiah; that my three daughters, my wife and my mother-in-law, who also ate peanut products, are not all lying in some hospital; that my Snickers-loving, peanut butter-eating rotund self is not laid up in somebody’s ICU.
Journalists rarely consider that the news crisis of the day can affect us. This critical brush with the news has given me a newfound purpose for my work.
Isaiah, whom we affectionately call “the little prophet,” first showed signs that he was sick during the first week in February, according to Taunya. “He had a fever of around 103 and even though I gave him Children’s Motrin to bring it down, it went back up in a few hours,” she told me, as I asked her to recount every detail of the illness.
Taunya initially thought the source of the fever was teething. After a few days the fever went down to around 99, but then Isaiah started to show different, troubling signs. “He started to get cranky, and he would scream at the top of his voice,” she said. “He screamed and cried at church, and he never seemed to be happy even though normally he is always smiling and happy-go-lucky.”
On Feb. 3, Taunya was concerned enough call a medical hotline for our HMO when she discovered diarrhea and other disturbing symptoms. “He started bleeding in his gums and his lips, and he also developed blisters on both of his thumbs. Every time I would wipe his mouth, it would bleed a lot.”
Despite these worrisome signs, we were not given an appointment until Feb. 9. When Isaiah’s condition further deteriorated, Taunya pushed to have him seen earlier. On Feb 8, the doctor at an after-hours center for Kaiser Permanente sent my wife home with no clear diagnosis and instructions to give our son “clear liquids and Tylenol.”
That night, Taunya discovered bloody stools in his diaper. By the time we returned to Kaiser the next day, she had a bag filled with bloody diapers. After seeing Isaiah’s spiking temperature of 104.8 and diapers filled with blood, a Kaiser doctor sent us to Children’s National Medical Center where several doctors and nurses examined him. We stayed at Children’s Hospital for more than eight hours. As I sat in the ER, I was so grateful for my wife’s persistence and so mad at myself.
Hospital doctors did sonograms, X-rays and more lab tests that indicated that our child had a possible bacterial infection, possibly salmonella.
We thank God that Isaiah is recovering. But Taunya is still furious about what happened to our son and about the people responsible for causing it. It enrages us that the peanut company executives who reportedly knowingly released salmonella-tainted peanuts to the public stood before Congress and took the Fifth Amendment. “I feel like the persons who were responsible for this were only worried about the bottom line, and that was the dollar,” Taunya told me. “This company that thinks they are getting away with murder needs to account for every child and every innocent person that was hurt.”
I listened as a husband and father. But I also listened as a reporter, recording her words during and after the crisis.
I am grateful that Isaiah has gotten a second chance. It is now up to me to figure out what to do as a reporter, how to follow the story—the story that led to my own home.
Hamil R. Harris is a reporter for The Washington Post.