Powhatan woman who contracted E.coli: ‘It was the worst experience of my life’

RICHMOND, Va. -- A CBS 6 Problem Solvers investigation recently highlighted health code violations at restaurant chain Chipotle that could make people sick.

After that story aired, a woman reached out to us about her friend, Aubrey Burge, in Powhatan who contracted E. coli last year and had to be hospitalized.

While she doesn't know the source, she suspects she consumed the E. coli bacteria while eating at Chipotle.

But CBS 6 Problem Solver Melissa Hipolit found Burge will most likely never learn the source of her illness.

Burge never eats out these days and prefers to prepare all of her meals herself.

But she hasn't always been like this.

It started with painful stomach cramps, diarrhea, and fatigue last November.

"I was losing a lot of weight rapidly, couldn't keep anything down," Burge said.

Within a few weeks, the then 27-year-old could tolerate no more than 3-4 cups of clear liquids before vomiting, had daily fevers over 100 degrees, and lost 25 pounds.

"I was going to the bathroom six to seven times a day, just mainly blood. It was terrible," Burge said.

Her doctor couldn't figure out the cause.

"The stomach cramps were the worst pains I've ever had in my entire life, every minute was agony on my entire body," Burge said.

At first, she said he suspected Crohn's disease, but when the medication he prescribed didn't seem to be making a difference "the doctor realized my body was wrecked, I was so dehydrated I was anemic to the point it was very dangerous, so he immediately admitted me to the hospital."

That's where Burge finally learned what wreaked havoc on her body: "it says here stool test results came back positive for E. coli."

According to data from the CDC, E. coli bacteria causes roughly 265,000 people, like Aubrey, to get sick annually.

"It was the worst experience of my life to this date. It was awful," Burge said.

In Virginia, an average of 131 people are sickened by the Shiga toxin-producing E. coli bacteria every year, but our research found that already this year, 228 people got sick from E. coli bacteria.

But epidemiologist Seth Levine with the Virginia Department of Health said that's because of new detection criteria in 2018.

"We don't necessarily think there is more E. coli out there occurring. We just think more is being detected because of this new laboratory test that's being done," Levine said.

Levine said E. coli bacteria transmit through fecal matter so humans can contract it from other humans who potentially don't wash their hands properly after having E. coli generated diarrhea.

"It's essential for ill food handlers not to work while they actively have diarrhea," Levine said.

Or, they can get it from touching E. coli infected animals and then putting their hand in their mouth, ground beef that was not cooked to at least 160 degrees, or even lettuce contaminated with fecal matter, which caused a recent E. coli outbreak that killed 5 people.

Yet Levine said in instances like Aubrey's case, it's hard to find a source.

"We try our best to identify that, but for a sporadic case it's almost impossible to identify what lead to their infection," Levine said.

So while Burge may suspect she contracted the E. coli from a certain meal she ate out, Levine says chances are slim to none the source will ever be found.

"I would like to get some resolution as far as where this came from, how I got it, and hopefully take action after that," Burge said.

Still, Burge hopes others can learn from her story.

"I would advise people to really look into what they're eating, and where it's coming from and where they're eating out at," Burge said.

The CDC recommends you contact your healthcare provider if you have diarrhea that lasts for more than 3 days, or it is accompanied by high fever, blood in the stool, or so much vomiting that you cannot keep liquids down and you pass very little urine.