Late one night in September of 2013, Rick Schiller awoke in bed with his right leg throbbing. Schiller, who is in his fifties, lives in San Jose, California. He had been feeling ill all week, and, as he reached under the covers, he found his leg hot to the touch. He struggled to sit upright, then turned on a light and pulled back the sheet. “My leg was about twice the normal size, maybe even three times,” he told me. “And it was hard as a rock, and bright purple.”
Schiller roused his fiancée, who helped him hobble to their car. He dropped into the passenger seat, but he couldn’t bend his leg to fit it through the door. “So I tell her, ‘Just grab it and shove it in,’ ” he recalled. “I almost passed out in pain.”
At the hospital, five employees helped move Schiller from the car to a consulting room. When a doctor examined his leg, she warned him that it was so swollen there was a chance it might burst. She tried to remove fluid with a needle, but nothing came out. “So she goes in with a bigger needle—nothing comes out,” Schiller said. “Then she goes in with a huge needle, like the size of a pencil lead—nothing comes out.” When the doctor tugged on the plunger, the syringe filled with a chunky, meatlike substance. “And then she gasped,” Schiller said.
That night, he drifted in and out of consciousness in his hospital room. His temperature rose to a hundred and three degrees and his right eye oozed fluid that crusted over his face. Schiller’s doctors found that he had contracted a form of the salmonella bacterium, known as Salmonella Heidelberg, which triggered a cascade of conditions, including an inflamed colon and an acute form of arthritis. The source of the infection was most likely something he had eaten, but Schiller had no idea what. He spent four days in intensive care before he could stand again and navigate the hallways. On the fifth day, he went home, but the right side of his body still felt weak, trembly, and sore, and he suffered from constant headaches. His doctors warned that he might never fully recover.
Three weeks later, Schiller received a phone call from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An investigator wanted to know whether he had eaten chicken before he became sick. Schiller remembered that he’d bought two packages of raw Foster Farms chicken thighs just before the illness. He’d eaten a few pieces from one of the packages; the other package was still in his freezer. Several days later, an investigator from the U.S. Department of Agriculture stopped by to pick it up. She dropped the chicken into a portable cooler and handed him a slip of paper that said “Property Receipt.” That was the last time Schiller heard from the investigators. More than a year later, he still wasn’t sure what was in the chicken: “I don’t know what the Department of Agriculture found.”
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