Fjeld had a 5 percent chance of survival
by Natalie J. Ostgaard, City Editor
Seeing her family Christmas picture, one could never tell that two months ago, BreAnne Fjeld, a normally energetic, physically fit, healthy 22-year-old, lay in a Santa Barbara, Calif. hospital, hooked up to machines, severely bloated, weighing nearly 200 pounds. And as she found out shortly before leaving her home of nearly three weeks, she had only a 5 percent chance of survival.
She was suffering from E. coli 0157:H7, the most severe strain of the bacterial infection.
Fjeld spoke about her ordeal to Mrs. Henneberg’s seventh-grade family consumer science students at Highland School this week to help kick off their food unit, which began with food safety procedures. As her mother Belinda, vocal instructor for Crookston Schools, tearfully recalled the experience while joining BreAnne for some classes, it became apparent the talk involved much more than food safety.
How it began
On Monday, Nov. 1, BreAnne had just moved from San Diego to Malibu, ready to begin her new job at a health club as a massage therapist. She wasn’t feeling well, having a lot of gas and stomach cramps along with diarrhea, so she took some Tylenol and went off to give a two-hour massage interview with her new boss. She said she’d been taking laxatives for constipation, so didn’t think too much of it at the time.
The next morning, she threw up some blood. “I knew that if you throw up blood you should do something about it, but I didn’t,” she said. She took more Tylenol, laid down for a nap, and when she woke up “felt 100 percent better. So, I worked out for four hours” and proceeded to severely dehydrate herself.
After arriving home to the place she’d lived at for only a day, BreAnne said she found herself in the bathroom often, having large amounts of blood, about 7 ounces, in her stools. With no insurance as she was in between jobs, she was hesitant to seek medical help, but finally relented and went to the emergency room about 9 p.m. She was admitted to the hospital shortly after.
She found herself in a hospital far from home, in a city she’d only lived in for 36 hours, where she only knew three people, with a landlord she’d known for three hours. “She was by my side the whole time. I call her my guardian angel.”
It wasn’t until her mother arrived two days later, on Thursday, that BreAnne was diagnosed with the deadly disease. Her father, Roger, arrived Sunday, the same day she was transferred to a hospital in Santa Barbara, 45 miles away, that had the plasma transfer equipment necessary to save BreAnne’s life.
What happened to put this young woman’s life in so much danger? While very young children are typically more like to develop serious complications from E. coli, anyone of any age can become affected with the bacteria. BreAnne’s liver, pancreas and kidneys had shut down, partly because she’d originally been treated with antibiotics. Medical research has shown that treating the disease with antibiotics can do more harm than good, she pointed out.
She had some rough times throughout her 19-day hospital stay. With catheters and tubes sticking out everywhere to wash the toxins from her body and painkillers doping her up, BreAnne was “pretty out of it” for a while. At times, she couldn’t respond to questions from others.
Her family was thrilled one day when they talked about changing the channel from the Vikings game to something else and, out of the blue, BreAnne said she was watching.
“It was little things like that that gave us hope,” said Belinda.
BreAnne also developed other illnesses, common with E. coli: hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) and thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP), along with high blood pressure and fever.
Even for being so far from home, BreAnne had lots of company, mainly because of her dire situation. Her parents were with her until she was released, her brother flew in from Montana for a week and other friends and relatives also spent time with her in the hospital.
“I just thought they all loved me,” said BreAnne. “It didn’t dawn on me that they were there because they didn’t know if I’d make it.”
She was quick to give credit to her doctors, who she said always had a positive attitude, which kept her from being afraid. Neither her parents nor doctors told her how bad her condition was for fear of bringing her down.
While in the hospital, BreAnne said she set a goal of leaving before Thanksgiving, which she did. And on the day she got out, she did lunges down the hallway and doctors, nurses and other staff bid the vocal ensemble graduate a fitting farewell by singing “So Long, Farewell” from “The Sound of Music.”
Today, BreAnne shows few signs of being gravely ill only a short time ago. She’s lost the fluid that built up during her treatment and is back to being physically active as she enjoys.
For now, she’s back home for rest and relaxation for a few months with her parents in Fertile. She does need to make periodic doctor visits to see that she’s maintaining her health. She had a scare around Christmastime when her blood platelets were down, but they quickly went back up.
As a music writer, BreAnne pens melody and lyrics. Before her ordeal, she wrote primarily rhythm and blues songs, but said she now writes Christian music.
“When I was in the hospital, I had Christian lyrics on and felt so at peace,” she said. “I never worried.”
In fact, she wrote a song while in the hospital and performed it in church a few days ago, she added.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, BreAnne said she plans to return to California in March and spend the month with friends. After talking to friends there, she said she’s to move back there in a few months.
“Before I got sick I couldn’t to get out of Minnesota. I did what I wanted to do for myself,” she said, “but now I want to follow the path God wants.”
“We’re just so happy to have her here,” Belinda added. “After everything she’s been through, she’s doing amazingly well.”
Both Belinda and BreAnne attributed her remarkable recovery to not only expert medical staff but also to the prayers and concern of everyone back home as well as BreAnne’s strong will.
Tracking E. coli
At this point, BreAnne is not sure exactly how she contracted E. coli, and might not ever be. The only sure thing is that it came from eating contaminated food, as it is a food-borne illness. BreAnne said she frequently ate out the week before at sub shops and other restaurants, dining on chicken and salad fare.
One of the most common sources of the bacteria is contaminated meat such as hamburger. Steaks pose little threat. But many cases have been traced to other sources such as petting zoos, produce such as greens and fruit, swimming pools, day care centers and restaurants. The origin of the bacteria is feces, BreAnne explained, so it can contaminate foods in a number of ways.
“You just have to watch out everywhere, especially when eating out,” BreAnne cautioned. “At some restaurants they don’t even wear gloves, and you never know if they’ve washed their hands.”
She also warned that pre-packaged lettuce and produce should still be washed thoroughly, and that people should wash their hands frequently to prevent getting any kind of food-borne illness.
Both the Minnesota and California Health Departments have contacted her, and she said she’s also working with a lawyer who’s dealt with other E. coli outbreaks in hopes of tracing the origin of her disease. Still, with typical incubation period of three to nine days, the source will be difficult to track.