Food Safety Victim Testimony: Virginia Dexter

On Sept. 19 and 20, a public hearing took place in Washington on draft rules concerning food shipped to the United States. Once finalized, the rules will hold foreign and domestic suppliers to the same safety standards. At the Sept. 19 hearing on Capitol Hill, six Americans who have been sickened by contaminated food delivered testimony about their experiences.

Among those who testified, five people had fallen ill as a result of hepatitis A contamination in pomegranate seeds shipped from Turkey. The outbreak sickened 161 Americans in 10 states.

dexter-100My name is Virginia Dexter from Fields Landing, California. You could say I'm a health nut. I hike, I go to the gym, and I eat healthy foods. On June 1, I started getting sick—chills, fever, vomiting. I remember the date because it was the first day of what should have been a relaxing vacation. After four days of flu-like symptoms that continued to worsen, my husband called the health department and learned about infections from the foodborne hepatitis A virus.

Knowing that I regularly made smoothies with the recently recalled berry mix, I made an appointment to see my doctor. That night I couldn't keep down any food or drink—not even water. When I was able to get up in the morning, I went straight to the emergency room. Unable to get out of the car, my husband went into the hospital and explained my condition. Once they got me to a bed, I was immediately hooked up to an IV, and the blood tests started. Unusually, an internist came down to the emergency room and told me that I may need a liver transplant. I was prepped to be flown to San Francisco for the procedure. I was quarantined, and anyone who entered the room needed to be gowned and gloved. This continued for three days. Fortunately, with the hospital care, my liver enzymes dropped from the thousands to the hundreds over the next three days.

Although I was not out of the woods yet, doctors allowed me to return home under the condition that my enzymes continued to be regularly monitored. Even then, my fever persisted. I was consistently nauseated, and I broke out into an excruciating skin rash. My husband was forced to devote most of his time to being my nurse. He watched over me, cooked, and cleaned. My son, Wade, did most of our errands and worked on our family business alone. Without them, I would not have been able to take care of myself over these past three months. I had to push myself just to lie on the couch to spend time with my family.

I have been showing symptoms related to a hepatitis A infection ever since. I have no energy and even the simplest tasks around the house wear me out. I am forced to spend most of the day in a reclined position, feeling as though I am in a fog more often than not. I don't know when I will regain my usual strength, be able to work, and go about my everyday life.

Doctors have told me that it could be months before I am back to my regular self. My experience with foodborne illness continues to be incredibly difficult, but I know that I am lucky. I was in an acute critical condition when I entered the hospital in June. I am here today in hopes that my story will reinforce the need for stronger regulations of imported foods. As a victim of a foodborne illness caused by a processed product made from fresh produce with an imported ingredient, three major components of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act are very important to me. I hope the draft rules for the Foreign Supplier Verification Program will be fully and promptly implemented.

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