Beaumont woman who suffered nerve damage serves suit to restaurant she says served toxic fish


January, 7, 2009

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Donna Schroeder tried grouper for the first time last summer, and although she found the fish fantastic she won't ever be trying it again.

Schroeder, of Beaumont, said the grouper special she ordered at Stingaree's in Crystal Beach was so good she finished every single bite. But, not long after finishing her meal, the fish swam upstream.

"When I first got stick I thought I had typical, normal food poisoning and went to the emergency room at (Memorial Hermann Baptist Memorial Hospital) and they treated it as food poisoning," she said. "I didn't get better."

Over the next few days, Schroeder said, she began to experience several new symptoms. Cold surfaces felt hot, hot surfaces felt cold and she felt a peculiar tingling in her hand, she said.

"If I walked on bare tiles that are cold it will feel like it's burning," she said.

Schroeder said she entered the strange symptoms and 'grouper' into Google and soon found an answer: ciguatera poisoning.

In tropical waters algae that produce the toxins are eaten by small fish, which in turn are eaten by bigger fish later eaten by people, said Schroeder, who learned about the disease through conversations with the Center for Disease Control, Food and Drug Administration and a local physician familiar with the condition who has been treating her.

While ciguatera poisoning is common in Caribbean countries and other parts of the world it is relatively unheard of in the United States, even among the medical community, Schroeder said.

"This is what I think has happened, I think there have been many, many more of (these infections) than thought, but people thought they had food poisoning," she said. "They just put up with the symptoms if doctors don't know about it. No one is familiar with it because it's not been dealt with out here."

Fish that carry the toxins normally inhabit waters containing coral reefs, which are relatively rare in U.S. coastal waters, but the grouper she ate may have originated from the Flower Garden reef located in the Gulf of Mexico.

Symptoms from the neurotoxins can last for days, months, or in some cases several years, according to the Center for Disease Control, and sufferers may experience relapses throughout their life.

Cooking, burning or freezing fish carrying the toxins won't stop them from transmitting it to people, Schroeder noted, and there's no good method for testing for it. Schroeder said she has heard that if a suspect fish is left lying out for a little while and flies avoid it that could be an indication it is carrying the toxins.

Although the toxin cannot be detected, Schroeder has filed suit in 172nd District Court Jefferson County against Stingaree arguing that the restaurant had a duty to warn its customers about the danger of ciguatera poisoning, a disease for which there is no cure, only treatment for the symptoms.

Jim Vratis, Stingaree's owner who also is a lawyer, said he is sorry that Schroeder was infected and said he has since stopped serving the grouper.

He said the dish was very popular and noted that at least 50 other people ate the special the same evening as Schroeder without experiencing similar symptoms, that he is aware of, and speculated that she may have been naturally more susceptible to the toxins than other diners.

"It's just unfortunate," he said, adding that he has sent Schroeder and her husband, whom he knows as a fellow member of the legal community, a letter expressing his condolences.

Vratis added that there was nothing the restaurant, which he said has had no complaints about sanitation or problems with health inspections, could do to prevent the infection. He said the fish was acquired from Katie's Seafood Market of Galveston, which is also named in the lawsuit, and that it was fresh when served. The Enterprise was unable to reach the seafood market's owner.

The fishermen that supply Katie's are prohibited from fishing within 90 miles of the reef and must sign affidavits declaring their compliance with the rule, he noted.

Whether a fish bearing toxins was swept by ocean currents away from the restricted area or something else happened that led to it being caught is virtually impossible to say, Vratis said.

Vratis, whose restaurant will likely be closed through next month due to hurricane damage, said he had never heard of ciguatera poisoning before, but that while in Mexico he had heard some people avoid eating barracuda and other reef fish.



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