Just after Thanksgiving, 2008, Shirley Mae Almer, 72, a mother of 5, and a grandmother, checked in to the Good Samaritan Society-Bethany nursing home in Brainerd, Minnesota. This was going to be a temporary stay, to help regain her strength and recover from a urinary tract infection, which, given her recent history, was only a minor inconvenience.
And Christmas was coming. It would be spent with her children and grandchildren. There were presents to buy, and she was looking forward to getting a second puppy. Shirley was due to get out of the nursing home the Monday before Christmas – barely enough time to get ready for the Holidays.
Only the year before, Shirley had successful surgery to remove lung cancer. And in July 2008, she had not one, but two, brain seizures. After undergoing radiation therapy and rigorous rehabilitation she recovered from that, too, leaving the hospital just 3 months later. Shirley had excellent medical care, a large and loving family, and she had something else too, what her son calls sisu, a Finnish word, which reflects their family ancestry and means a person with spunk, fortitude, and determination.
Things were coming along as planned at the Good Samaritan nursing home until mid-December. Sometime around the 14th of the month, a week before her planned release, Shirley engaged in an utterly innocent act – she ate some peanut butter toast. Then, slowly at first, she began to notice changes: stomach cramping, nausea, fever, and diarrhea. The staff couldn’t figure out why this was happening to her and because she seemed to be getting worse she was taken to the University of Minnesota Hospital.
A few days later, on Sunday, December 21 – the day before her scheduled release from the nursing home – Shirley went into shock. By then her blood was severely infected and multiple organs were failing. Her family was called to the hospital and told she had only hours to live. Later that day, surrounded by her children, she died.
Eight more people, mostly children and the elderly, died throughout 2008 and 2009. And across the country in all but 4 states, 714 were sickened, hundreds requiring hospitalization. Some were less than 1 years old, 21% were less than 5, half were less than 16, and the oldest was 98. The crucial characteristic shared by all of these people was more than just being vulnerable and unprotected; rather, it’s that they were all utterly and absolutely innocent. Not one of them did anything to bring this on themselves: they might as well have been shot in a drive-by shooting.
It got Christopher Meunier, 7, who screamed, “Mommy, mommy, it hurts so bad I want to die.” Eleven year old Kristen Brugh was given dialysis in her home every night by her father. Her condition, however, became so severe that she needed a transplant. Kristen got lucky because she found a donor – her dad. Three year old Peter Hurley was poisoned too, but the family didn’t know how. He seemed to be getting better though, so his father asked the family pediatrician if his son could have his favorite snack- a peanut butter cookie. The doctor said sure, that couldn’t hurt; but Peter stayed ill for 11 more days.
What happened to these children brings us to the deeper story: the pain and suffering caused in these cases reached beyond the people who caught the salmonella.
Shirley Mae Almer had a kitchenette in her room at the nursing home. Ginger Lorentz, her daughter, who reminds you of a young Loretta Lynn, dropped by as much as she could. One such visit took place around December 14, just shy of her mother’s release date from the home and the much-anticipated family Christmas. Life, it seemed, could be fair after all. Ginger went into the kitchenette and put some bread in the toaster. When it was ready she came back into the living room and gave her mother her favorite snack — peanut butter on toast.