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Family shares memories of local E. coli victim

September 24, 2006|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN - Warren and Corinne Swartz of Hagerstown weren't ready for a media throng after word got out about the death of Corinne's mother, June E. Dunning, from E. coli, possibly due to tainted spinach.

After a story ran Friday in The Morning Herald and The Daily Mail, reporters and television satellite trucks waited outside the Swartzes' house on The Terrace. The couple received many interview requests.

After a day to themselves, the Swartzes invited media into their home on Saturday to share memories of Dunning, and retell the days before she died Sept. 13 at age 86.

Dunning's death certificate lists E. coli 0157:H as a cause, but Warren Swartz said Saturday that other paperwork confirms the strain as 0157:H7. That's the strain that has sickened at least 166 people in 25 states who ate fresh spinach, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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A Wisconsin woman's death has been attributed to bad spinach. The deaths of Dunning - who ate bagged spinach three times in five days before she was hospitalized - and a 2-year-old Idaho boy are being studied for possible connections to the outbreak.

Test results on Dunning's tissue and samples of leftover spinach are expected within several days, county and state health spokesmen have said.

Dunning ate bagged spinach on Aug. 30 and Sept. 1, then, on Sept. 2, went to the hospital with E. coli symptoms, such as bloody diarrhea, according to Warren Swartz. On Saturday, he noted that she also had eaten spinach on Aug. 28.

The Swartzes ate spinach from one of the same bags from which Dunning ate. Corinne Swartz said she felt nausea, dizziness and stomach pain while at her mother's bedside, but got through it.

The Swartzes wanted people to know about Dunning's death because health officials hadn't revealed it to the public.

On Friday, the day the first story was published, Maryland's Department of Health & Mental Hygiene held a press conference to say the state had three positive E. coli cases linked to spinach, and was looking at four possible others - including Dunning's, although she wasn't mentioned by name.

Warren Swartz wondered aloud on Saturday if the timing of the state's announcement was a coincidence.

Standing before a gaggle of TV cameras in her living room Saturday, Corinne Swartz said of her mother, "I think she always tried to be real healthy and keep her cholesterol down, and she did everything the doctors told her to do."

As she spoke, Corinne Swartz held Roxie, her Yorkshire terrier, who wore light blue ribbons near her ears. Besides bingo and riding a bus to the shopping mall, walking Roxie was one of Dunning's favorite pastimes, Warren Swartz said.

Dunning, a native of England, lived for years in Cascade with her husband, Arthur, who worked for the U.S. Army at Fort Ritchie. They moved to Hagerstown when Arthur Dunning became a private detective, Corinne Swartz said.

After Arthur Dunning died, June Dunning lived alone. However, Corinne Swartz wanted to look after her mother, so she lived with the Swartzes, including when they moved to Hagerstown in 2001.

Corinne Swartz said her mother never lost her British accent or her reserved nature.

She liked to cross-stitch, but her eyesight got worse; she stuck to gardening and to bingo, with its large-print numbers. Corinne Swartz said her mother played about 18 or 20 bingo cards at a time.

Reporters - mostly from TV stations in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. - peppered the Swartzes with questions as two parakeets chirped from their cage in the kitchen.

Did Dunning boast of good health because she ate spinach? Will you eat spinach now? In your gut, how certain are you that spinach was to blame? Where should our viewers donate money?

The Swartzes answered them all: No. Not intentionally. Real certain. Maybe animal shelters or cancer research.

Asked to recall the last thing her mother told her, Corinne Swartz said Dunning lost her ability to speak. Instead, during a brief uptick in her condition, she simply puckered her lips and blew her daughter a kiss.

Shortly after talking to a People magazine reporter in his living room, Warren Swartz said he and his wife didn't realize how widely his mother-in-law's story would travel.

The couple's attempt at public awareness succeeded. But, "through all this," Corinne Swartz said, "you don't even have time to grieve."

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