Family speaks out after woman is hospitalized after eating nacho cheese from gas station

SACRAMENTO, CA (KTXL) -- "My phone rings and I pick up the phone and it's her, and she can't articulate a word. And she's saying, basically she's saying 'Sister, I need you here now...'" said Theresa Kelly.

That's how Kelly first came to realize the seriousness of the illness that's changed her vibrant little sister, Lavinia, into a patient who's fighting to breathe or even open her eyes.

Early on, Theresa thought she was going to lose her.

"Yeah, it's really scary. And to think if her and my mother had eaten there, my mom's older. If my mom had eaten there, I don't know if we would have lost both of them," she said.

Don't get food poisoning! Ten tips to help avoid it

12 PHOTOS
Don't Get Food Poisoning! Ten Tips to Help Avoid It
See Gallery
Don't Get Food Poisoning! Ten Tips to Help Avoid It

Exposure to air is the enemy of food storage, and if a seal is broken or a can is dented, that’s a good sign that air (and potential foodborne pathogens) are making their way in. Bulges can be a sign of rampant bacterial activity inside the can. Even if the food looks okay when you open the can, don’t eat it.

Wash Your Hands

Always wash your hands before eating anything, because if you don’t, you’ll also be eating everything that you’ve touched since the last time you washed your hands. Be especially careful if you’ve handled raw meat — in that case, wash your hands before you touch anything else, not just food.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Look Out for Cross-Contamination

If you’ve cut up raw chicken on a cutting board, common sense should tell you not to go ahead and prepare a salad with that same knife and cutting board without thoroughly washing them first. If anything’s come in contact with raw meat, poultry, fish, or eggs, make sure it gets a thorough scrubbing with soap and hot water.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Cook Meats Thoroughly

Eating undercooked meat, especially chicken, can be a one-way ticket to the emergency room. Make sure that all poultry is cooked to 165 degrees and fish to 145 degrees (sashimi and tartares excepted, of course). And if you’re going to be cooking that steak medium-rare, make sure that it’s from a good source; if you have any doubt, cook it to 160 degrees.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Refrigerate Perishable Food

Once perishable food has been sitting out for more than two hours, it becomes a world-class bacteria breeding ground. Cheese dip that’s been on that party table for six hours, we’re looking at you.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Throw Raw Meat Away After Two Days

Raw meat is far more susceptible to infestation by bacteria and viruses than cooked meat, and even if it’s in your fridge, it can still go bad. Buy meat on the day you’re planning on cooking it, and don’t leave it in your fridge for longer than overnight. If you know you won’t be using it for a few days, freeze it.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Use Common Sense

The “smell test” is often your first line of defense against food poisoning. If something smells a little funky, don’t risk it. If you take a bite and something seems a little off, throw it out. Trust your instincts; they’re usually correct.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Only Drink Treated Water

“Don’t drink the water” is often the first thing you’ll hear when traveling to a foreign country, and it’s true: you haven’t had any time to build up immunity to potential toxins in the water like the locals have, so stick with the bottled stuff. In the same vein, never drink water from wells, streams, any other source that hasn’t been treated in some way, like chlorination.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Watch Out for Broken Seals or Dented or Bulging Cans

Exposure to air is the enemy of food storage, and if a seal is broken or a can is dented, that’s a good sign that air (and potential foodborne pathogens) are making their way in. Bulges can be a sign of rampant bacterial activity inside the can. Even if the food looks okay when you open the can, don’t eat it.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Don’t Eat Wild Mushrooms

This should go without saying, but if you’re out hiking and happen upon a funny-looking mushroom — or even one that you're pretty sure is one of those chanterelles or porcini that cost so much in the market — please resist the urge to eat it unless you're an experienced mycologist. It could be toxic, and eating a toxic mushroom can result in consequences from hallucinations to extreme discomfort to death.

Image Credit: iStockPhoto/Thinkstock

Cook Frozen Foods Thoroughly

There’s a reason why frozen foods always indicate cooking times on the package, and it’s not just because that's how long they take to heat up. Frozen foods, even if they’re cooked first, should still be considered raw, and need to be cooked thoroughly before serving. Even if you’re getting impatient, make sure your frozen foods heat for the specified time. Lukewarm food tastes even worse when served with a side of food poisoning.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

The "what ifs" torturing the Kelly family all surround Lavinia's choice to drizzle the Doritos she bought at a Walnut Grove gas station April 21 with nacho cheese sauce from the deli area.

She's now one of at least five people being treated at area hospitals after contracting botulism that Sacramento County health investigators have linked to the nacho cheese served by Valley Oak Food and Fuel.

"She's been clean, clean and sober almost a year when this happened. And she was embracing life, and then all of it's shot down 'bam.' So, I don't know," said her mother Dawn Kelly.

Lavinia Kelly's three kids and the rest of her family have watched her struggle to regain even the slightest function as the toxins she swallowed attacked her nerve endings.

She's now spending her third week in intensive care.

SEE ALSO: Parents arrested after newborn found with about 100 rodent bites

"I've never seen my sister, um, not have function of her body or be able to communicate. And I've never seen my sister on tubes or anything like that," said Theresa Kelly.

A month ago, Lavinia was eagerly helping her big sis start a new chapter in her life, sending her down the aisle.

Now loved ones wonder what kind of life this illness will leave Lavinia with.

"Thank God that we know she can recover. We just don't know how long or how much effort and, and we've got somebody here every single morning, every single day. She's not left, not one minute. We want to make sure that she can communicate as much as possible," said Theresa.

Here are 15 common food poisoning risks

17 PHOTOS
15 Common Food Poisoning Risks
See Gallery
15 Common Food Poisoning Risks

Every year 48 million Americans, or roughly one in six people, get sick from foodborne illnesses, and about 3,000 cases each year are deadly. Find out which common foods carry the highest risk of food poisoning.

Image Credit: jupiterimages

Chicken

Between 1998 and 2010 in the United States, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reports that chicken accounted for 452 outbreaks that sickened 6,896 consumers, more than to any other meat or poultry product. Most outbreaks are caused by bacteria Clostridium perfringens, found in poorly prepared food or food left to stand too long, and bacteria Salmonella, which often contaminates poultry during slaughter and processing.

Image Credit: jupiterimages/Simon Murrell

Ground Beef

Ground beef carries a very high risk of foodborne illness because contamination with antibiotic-susceptible and resistant strains of E. coli and Salmonella can occur, leading to hospitalization, severe symptoms with long-term health effects or death.

Image Credit: jupiterimages

Eggs

Most illnesses from egg consumption are due to Salmonella, sickening more than 11,000 people from 1990 to 2006. Federal regulations in the 1970s have reduced transmission of Salmonella from external fecal contamination of the shells, but today's most common type, Salmonella enteritidis, infects the ovaries of healthy hens and is transmitted to the egg even before the shell is formed. Eating your eggs raw or runny can increase your risk of illness.

Image Credit: jupiterimages

Tuna

Scombroid is the leading cause of illness for tuna dishes and occurs when improperly stored fresh fish start to decay and release natural toxins. The SCPI's Outbreak Alert! database shows that more than 2,300 people have reported cases of scombroid poisoning, which can cause symptoms like abdominal cramps, nausea and diarrhea.

Image Credit: jupiterimages

Oysters

Most cases of illness with oysters occurred in restaurants and are attributed to Norovirus and bacteria Vibrio. While other foods can become contaminated with Norovirus from improper handling, oysters can pick up the bacteria from the waters they are harvested from, making them risky to serve raw or undercooked.

Image Credit: jupiterimages

Pork

The CSPI reports that pork (other than ham, sausage and barbecue) sickened more than 2,000 people from 1998 to 2010, and most pork illnesses were linked to Salmonella. Interestingly, more outbreaks occured at consumers' homes than in restaurants (40 percent compared to 24 percent of outbreaks).

Image Credit: jupiterimages

Turkey

From 1998 to 2010, there have been 130 turkey-related foodborne outbreaks that have caused 4,349 documented illnesses (second only to chicken among meat and poultry products) most commonly attributed to Clostridium perfringens. The CSPI explains that the spike of outbreaks in the months of November and December are due to improper handling of turkey holiday meals that are left out at room temperature for too long.

Image Credit: Getty Images

Potatoes

Outbreaks with potato occur in potato salads and other potato dishes, and more than 30 percent of potato-related outbreaks are linked to Salmonella. Since these dishes contain many ingredients, the causes of contamination can occur from any of the raw ingredients or from improper handling of a raw meat or poultry ingredient.

Image Credit: Getty Images/Martin Child

Other Beef Products (Not Steak, Ground or Roast)

Other beef products, such as beef jerky, beef stroganoff and chipped beef, are responsible for 99 outbreaks and at least 2,414 illnesses from 1998 to 2010 according to the CSPI. Improper handling after cooking may explain most cases of illness.

Image Credit: Getty Images/Russel Wasserfall

Barbecue Beef or Pork

The barbecue cooking method is unique in that it cooks with low, indirect heat and requires after-cooking handling. The CSPI's study of meat-related foodborne illness deems it "medium risk" for causing nearly 2,500 people to get sick from 1998 to 2010, often from pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium perfringens that may be signs of improper handling. In addition, nearly 40 percent of these outbreaks occurred in a restaurant.

Image Credit: Getty Images

Roast Beef

Traditional roast beef, brisket or pot roast involve oven-roasting thick cuts of meat in a shallow pan, boiling on a stovetop or cooking on a closed grill. According to CSPI, 2,470 people got sick from eating roast beef from 1998 to 2010, and more than half were sickened by Clostridiium perfringens, a sign that the meat stood at room temperature for too long before being served.

Image Credit: Getty Images

Cheese

Cheese can become contaminated with pathogens during production, and most cases of illness were due to Salmonella. Nowadays, cheese is made with pasteurized milk which lowers the risk of illness; however, unlicensed manufacturers may still use unpasteurized milk, so consumers should be wary, especially for Latin American-style cheeses like queso fresco and queso oaxaca.

Image Credit: Corbis/Clinton Hussey

Steak

The popular cooking method for steaks is searing, when the meat's surface is cooked at high heat over a short period of time. Only the pathogens on the surface are killed, which might explain the 82 foodborne outbreaks that have caused nearly 2,000 illnesses form 1998 to 2010. More than half of these illnesses were linked to E. coli infections.

Image Credit: Corbis/Clinton Hussey

Leafy Greens

In an analysis of a decade of foodborne outbreak data in the U.S., a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found that leafy vegetables account for the most illnesses, surprisingly outnumbering animal food categories like beef and poultry. The pathogen Norovirus, which can contaminate food when it is handled by a sick person, causes 46 percent of those illnesses.

Image Credit: jupiterimages

Ice Cream

The largest ice cream-related outbreak occurred in 1994, when an ice cream manufacturer used the same truck to haul unpasteurized liquid eggs and pasteurized ice cream premix. The Salmonella-contamined premix was used in ice cream products that sickened thousands of people across 41 states. Another major source of food poisoning is homemade ice cream due to the use of undercooked eggs.

Image Credit: Getty/Steve Baxter

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

"Somebody needs to be accountable. Somebody needs to pay attention to what the heck they're... what they're doing you know? It's crazy," said Dawn Kelly.

The Kelly family has turned to a Seattle firm specializing in food safety issues to pursue legal action against the gas station.

Owners there did not return FOX40's calls for comment Tuesday.

A GoFundMe page has been set up to help defray the cost of Lavinia's medical treatment and support her family as they support her.

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.