Hungry after a long shift at work, 33-year-old Lavinia Kelly stopped at a Sacramento-area gas station for a snack on April 21.
She selected a bag of Doritos, and then drizzled them with nacho cheese.
Hours later, the fatigue hit. She woke up the next morning with double vision, and by that evening, she was vomiting and having trouble breathing, the Sacramento Bee reports.
She went to the emergency room, where doctors placed her on a ventilator and admitted her to the intensive care unit. Three weeks later, she’s still there.
Kelly had contracted botulism, a rare but potentially fatal disease caused by a nerve toxin produced by certain types of Clostridium bacteria. People can contract the serious illness through home-canned foods, improperly commercially canned foods, cheese sauce, and foods held in warmers for extended periods of time, according to FoodSafety.gov. (That’s why you’re not supposed to eat canned goods that are leaking, bulging, or swollen—they may be contaminated with the toxin.)
According to a statement from the Sacramento County Department of Health on May 10, the source appears to be prepared nacho cheese sauce from that particular gas station. In total, five patients have been hospitalized as a result of foodborne botulism, and the illness is suspected in an additional person, too.
Botulism causes symptoms like double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and muscle weakness. In Kelly’s case, the toxins have affected her motor control, making her unable to open her eyes. Her loved ones need to lift her eyelids, and sometimes tape them up, so she can see who enters her hospital room, the Sacramento Bee reports.
About 5 percent of people with botulism die, either due to respiratory failure or the consequences of long-term paralysis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state.
Kelly’s family filed a lawsuit against the gas station, citing negligence among other issues.
“Only human mistakes create the environment for botulinum toxin to form,” her lawyer told the Sacramento Bee. We will use the lawsuit to learn more about the source of the food product that was contaminated. The source of the food product may be unrelated to the gas station; it could be a commercially made, pre-packaged item. That’s an essential question.”
Every case of foodborne botulism is treated as a public health emergency, the CDC says. That’s because the responsible food may still be available for consumption, which can make others ill.
The Sacramento outbreak isn’t the largest in recent years: Back in 2015, a church potluck in Ohio sickened 25 people with botulism. The culprit? Homemade canned potatoes, the CDC discovered.