OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The family of the 81-year-old Nebraska man who died last month after eating tainted cantaloupe hopes the listeria outbreak leads to improvements in food safety.
George Drinkwalter's relatives hope no other family will have to endure what they have in the past month. They say the Cody, Neb., man's life was cut short because of the fruit he chose to eat for breakfast.
"It was hard to watch him die the way he did die," Randy Drinkwalter, of North Platte, one of George's four sons, told The Associated Press in an interview Monday.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked 15 deaths and 84 illnesses in 19 states to the strain of listeria found on cantaloupes produced by Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo. Drinkwalter's death is the only one confirmed in Nebraska so far, but there have been five other illnesses in the state.
Like most food-borne illnesses, listeria bacteria have the biggest impact on the elderly and anyone with compromised immune systems. Symptoms can include fever, muscle aches, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems.
Drinkwalter's wife, Isla, said he was in good health before eating cantaloupe for breakfast a couple days in a row. In fact, George Drinkwalter had visited his doctor for a check-up and was told he was looking good shortly before he showed any symptoms, she said.
On Sept. 8, he started shaking, she said. The next day, he fell at home and had to be rushed by ambulance to the Valentine, Neb., hospital.
Initially, doctors told the family they didn't think the illness, which looked like pneumonia, was serious. But within a couple of days, Drinkwalter's condition deteriorated and he became incoherent as he writhed around in bed.
The doctors had Drinkwalter flown to Regional West Medical Center in Scottsbluff on Sept. 13. Tests there confirmed that he was also suffering from meningitis, but didn't immediately identify the cause.
Drinkwalter never improved, and he died on Sept. 14.
Test results confirming listeria was the cause of Drinkwalter's suffering didn't arrive until after he died. But family members don't blame the doctors who did all they could to help, said Keith Drinkwalter, another of George's sons.
"He was still doing good until this damn cantaloupe deal," said Keith Drinkwalter, who lives in Chadron.
Isla Drinkwalter, who just celebrated her 58th wedding anniversary in August, said her husband was a well-liked, kind man who valued family and always supported the local schools. The couple met after he served in the Army in Germany during the Korean War.
Family members recalled the way George Drinkwalter was always joking around and teasing friends and family. They said his smile made an impression on many of the people who contacted them after his death.
"He was pretty soft-hearted, and I think that's rubbed off on some of my kids too," Isla Drinkwalter said.
After ranching along the Niobrara River in the Sandhills near Kilgore for 33 years, the Drinkwalters moved to Cody more than 15 years ago.
Drinkwalter served on local school boards for more than 20 years, and after the family moved to Cody he drove a school bus. George and Isla Drinkwalter also spent many hours driving to Chadron, Neb., Casper, Wyo., and other locations to see their eight grandchildren's and 10 great grandchildren's activities.
"He always wanted to be involved with helping out the school and the community," Keith Drinkwalter said.
George Drinkwalter's oldest son, Darrell, said he will miss being able to turn to his father for advice.
"He's going to be missed. He was my rock," Darrell Drinkwalter said as his voice wavered. "He was always there."
The Drinkwalter family hasn't decided yet whether file a lawsuit against the cantaloupe producer and distributors. Family members hope that telling their story might help lead to a safer food production system, and maybe more consumers will be inspired to take precautions such as washing fruits and vegetables and cooking meat thoroughly.
"If we could prevent one other family from going through what we have, it will be worth it," Keith Drinkwalter said.
The fact that listeria bacteria can linger in the body for two months before causing an illness is a concern for the family because Isla Drinkwalter also ate some of the tainted cantaloupe.
"Somehow we've got to figure out a way, so it doesn't happen again," said Darrell Drinkwalter, who lives in Casper, Wyo.
About 800 cases of listeria are confirmed each year in the United States, according to CDC. There are usually three or four outbreaks a year. Most are traced to deli meat and soft cheeses, where listeria is most common.