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State E. coli victim says illness changed his life

By M.J. Ellington · (334)-262-1104

MONTGOMERY — An Alabama E. coli victim said he remembers all but a couple of his sickest days in 1992 as a boy battling the microbe raging through his body in a hospital hundreds of miles from home.

Now 26, Damion Heersink is in his second year of law school at Samford University in Birmingham.

But the Dothan boy, who was weeks away from his 11th birthday when he got sick, said the events that occurred after he mistakenly took one bite of uncooked hamburger on a Boy Scout campout permanently changed his life.

Some of the changes were good. Others reflect the scars that E. coli 0157:H7 left on a boy who many people thought would die before he reached that 11th birthday. The E. coli that made young Heersink so sick is the same agent in fresh spinach that caused illness and death in multiple states in September and October and more recently in food from Taco Bell sold in five states along the East Coast. The microbe that grows normally in cattle now infects produce in some instances.

“We were going to Florida to space camp when I got sick,” Damien Heersink said. “I remember everything but a couple of days when I was the sickest.”

At one point, a priest came into young Damien’s hospital room in Tampa, Fla. “I wasn’t sure then that I would make it,” he said Thursday. “But at no point did I think I would stop fighting.”

One by one, E. coli attacked the boy’s organs and threatened to shut down his body. The illness left him with permanent scars, taking 30 percent of his lung function, damaging his kidneys, and resulting in so much fluid between his heart and its exterior pericardium, that doctors surgically removed the lining so he could breathe. Even 15 years later, Heersink said, he watches his salt intake because of the kidney damage and knows he will face higher vulnerability for high blood pressure than the average person.

Heersink remembers the milestones at the hospital that helped him realize that he was going to leave alive. “In so many more days I knew they would take out the ventilator and I would breathe on my own,” he said. “I remember drinking from a glass for the first time, the test tubes.”

He finally left the hospital the day before his 11th birthday ,April 10, 1992.

Damion Heersink said without the research and resources of his parents, Dr. Marnix Heersink and his wife, Mary, he doubts he would be alive. Through high school and earlier college years, he battled intestinal scarring from E. coli that resulted in intense unpredictable pain.

Surgery two years ago corrected the problem. He remains careful about his choices for physical activities, and while he played football and basketball in high school, he wore a special shield to protect his chest.

It is the permanent impact of E. coli on some unsuspecting victims that turned Mary Heersink into an internationally known food safety advocate and author of “E. coli 0157: The True Story of A Mother’s Battle With A Killer Microbe.” Her son wants to work in environmental health law.

“Looking back, I’m glad it happened to me,” he said. “I have a unique perspective that people who look death in the eye have. Maybe I can use that to help others.”

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