By this point, Rex had entered the room and he noticed how the epidemiologist's eyes lit up when Suzanne mentioned hamburgers at Jack in the Box. Guilt swept over him. Rex had been raised on a beef cattle farm in Almira, Washington, where he'd seen cows get sick with diarrhea and then pass the illness on to the calves through the feeding process. Sometimes the calves died as a result. It was why his father had always stressed the motto "One hamburger, one cow, shorthand for slaughtering and processing one cow at a time." Rex rarely ate a hamburger after moving away from his father's farm, due to risks associated with large industrial meat-processing facilities. Yet he had let Brianne do it.
Suzanne Kiner was slumped over a chair next to Brianne's bed, fighting back the urge to nod off. Any minute, she kept thinking, Brianne might open her eyes.
Her husband, Rex, had retreated to an ICU waiting room for parents. It was hard to find a seat in there. The place was filled with people whose children were suffering from HUS. But Rex was more overwhelmed by the scene in Brianne's room than this one. There were tubes and cords and wires running in and out of her body. His little girl was in a coma after eating a hamburger. It was just too much to process.
Suzanne had the opposite reaction. She avoided the waiting room for parents. She had tried lying down in there on the first night, but all she did was sweat on the horribly uncomfortable vinyl furniture. Meantime, parents had started calling that room the Death Room. Everyone in there had a child in critical condition. Suzanne got amped up just thinking about the place. Besides, there was no way she was leaving Brianne's bedside. Since arriving at the hospital three days earlier, Suzanne hadn't been home once to freshen up or change clothes. She was determined to go through her daughter's illness with her.
Suddenly a nurse entered the room and motioned for Suzanne to step out into the hallway. She had some news: Brianne was about to get a roommate — a little boy badly in need of kidney dialysis who had just been rushed to Children's from a hospital in Tacoma.
Already an emotional wreck, Suzanne cupped her mouth when she first spotted little Michael. His innocence brought tears to her eyes. He looks like a little angel, she thought to herself.
Then she looked at Brianne, unable to fight off a nagging thought, Michael will live and Brianne will not. Brianne just looked so much worse. It was hard not to compare.
But Michael was in critical condition, too. The E. coli had made a frontal attack on his intestines. Doctors feared that his underdeveloped immune system would succumb.
Once the doctors finally left the room, Suzanne met Michael's parents.
Young and blue-collar, the couple struggled to keep their emotions in check. "My name is Diana."
"I'm Suzanne Kiner."
"Where did your child eat?" Diana asked.
"Jack in the Box," Suzanne said.
Diana's lips came together tightly as she nodded her head up and down. Michael had eaten there, too.
Just like that, an instant bond had been formed between two mothers with dying children.
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