of Article: http://www.tulsaworld.com/news/article.aspx?subjectid=17&articleid=20090823_17_A1_TeCuty138405
A hard-working Grove man's health has never
recovered from the rare and virulent bacteria.
His entire life, Kenneth Birkes has
worked seven days a week from dawn to dark.
ate a meal in honor of his father's 85th birthday at Country Cottage in
Locust Grove. It was Sunday, Aug. 17, 2008.
Five days later, Birkes fell ill. The 61-year-old Grove man hasn't worked
"There were seven of us who ate there that day. I was the only one in
the family that got sick," he said. Family members tried comparing
what each had eaten, but Birkes said he "got a little of
everything" at the restaurant's popular buffet.
On the same Sunday the Birkes family ate at the restaurant, 26-year-old
Chad Ingle and his wife, Cindy, arrived from church for Sunday dinner. The
young RCB Bank teller and his wife had just married in June.
As usual that Sunday, Country Cottage was packed. Over the years, the place
had become a kind of tourist destination in that part of northeastern
By all accounts, the food was great that day and the blue country house
"It was good," Birkes said. "We ate there quite a bit."
Five days later, the idyllic scene evolved into a nightmare.
People all over northeastern Oklahoma were falling ill with severe stomach
cramps and diarrhea. Nobody knew why at first, or how they were all
Ingle had become ill Wednesday night and sought medical help at Integris
Mayes County Medical Center.
Then Birkes found himself getting sick on the job.
"I was up in Kansas to get a drilling rig out in the country," he
said. "It hit me so quick."
He had just put the rig on a trailer and driven to the town of Edna, all
the while calling his wife to tell her he needed help.
"That's really the last thing I remember," Birkes said. His wife
initially took him to a hospital in Coffeyville, Kan., but he continued to
get worse. He didn't wake up until six weeks later at St. Francis Hospital.
By that Friday evening, St. Francis
Hospital had begun to see patients with similar symptoms — many of them
children. Ingle was one of those transported by ambulance to the Tulsa
hospital, which had perplexingly become the central site for patients.
"We never could figure that out," said Lynn Sund, St. Francis
senior vice president and chief nurse executive.
Staff there and ambulance crews began to notice that most of the patients
coming in were from the far northeastern corner of Oklahoma or had traveled
through there recently, she said.
That night, both St. Francis and EMSA's Medical Emergency Response Center
contacted the Oklahoma State Department of Health about the cluster of
patients coming in with similar symptoms from the same area of the state.
"That cued everybody there must be something happening in that
geographic area," said DeAnna Osborn, infection control nurse at St.
The state Health Department's acute disease division jumped into action
that night, said Laurie Smithee, an epidemiologist who heads the unit.
The team quickly put together a questionnaire and began calling people who
were hospitalized to ask where they had been and what they had eaten in the
last week. They also began surveying other hospitals to determine if other
patients were out there.
Late that night, in a conference with her team to compare notes, the arrow
began to point to Country Cottage. Six of the first eight patients
interviewed said they had recently eaten there.
"We definitely had heightened concerns, but we said, 'Do we have
enough evidence to tell them to close their doors?' " Smithee said.
At that point, they didn't. The team asked the Mayes County sanitarian to
investigate and inspect the restaurant on Saturday. He did, but there was
no indication anything was wrong there.
On Sunday, Ingle died.
That's when Locust Grove Mayor Shawn Bates heard the news. He knew many of
"I felt sick. Sick for everybody who was sick and sick for the young
man who died," he said. "I was thinking, 'How bad is this going
On Monday the state ordered the restaurant closed.
Later, the state Health Department team confirmed that the source of
contamination was Country Cottage.
"Early on, we were able to point to the restaurant with barely a
shadow of doubt," Smithee said.
The following days
The hospital's pediatric dialysis units
filled quickly. Both pediatric and adult intensive care units were reaching
capacity. "Our patient numbers were climbing," Sund said. Two
children were sent to an Oklahoma City hospital for dialysis, and four
adults were placed in other hospitals, she said.
By the time everyone was counted, 49 adults and 20 children had been
hospitalized at St. Francis. Thirty-five people were seen in the hospital's
emergency room and didn't need inpatient care. And 98 patients were seen at
outpatient facilities, Sund said.
Just five days after being notified there was an outbreak of some kind, the
state Health Department had a definitive answer on what had caused it.
According to tests by the federal Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, the outbreak was caused by E. coli O111, a rare and virulent
bacteria. And it was the worst outbreak ever seen in the U.S. caused by
that particular strain.
'Never be answered'
The next months were
consumed with trying to find out how the contaminant got in the restaurant
and whether it was spread through food, well water or by a food preparer.
Unfortunately, that question will never be answered, Smithee said.
"It is not unusual to not specifically find the organism," she
said. "There were so many food items at least 50 items on the buffet.
By the time people got sick, all that food was long gone."
Finally, on Saturday, Nov. 22, the Country Cottage reopened for business
after rigorous testing by health officials.
"Daily life has gone on. We want to get back to normal, but we can't
forget," Bates said. "We're still tender for those who lost a
loved one and for those who were sick and will never be the same."
Ingle's wife has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the restaurant. And
Birkes is among a group of clients of Seattle attorney Bill Marler asking
for a settlement from the restaurant's insurance company.
"If they turn us down, we have no choice but to sue the restaurant and
the owners for the policy and all personal assets," Marler said.
Birkes said he went from making $12,000 a month to nothing.
"This pretty well wiped us out," he said. After three months in
the hospital, he had to learn to walk again. Now, he has migraines four
days a week and is only able to go three hours at a time before needing to
"I'm still alive, and that's all that matters," Birkes said.
Country Cottage no longer has a line of people wrapped around the block to
"It's not like it was a year ago. It will never be the same,"