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Tiny listeria survivor comes home for Christmas

Jonathan Adams for msnbc.com

Newborn Kendall Paciorek is fed by her big sister, Madison, 4, on her first day home from the hospital. Kendall was born prematurely when her mother contracted listeria after eating contaminated cantaloupe. Kendall has little energy for feeding, so when she refuses a bottle, she must be fed through a stomach tube.

Three months after she was born, Kendall Paciorek is finally home, just in time for Christmas.

The premature girl from Fishers, Ind., is one of the tiniest victims of last summer’s deadly listeria outbreak in cantaloupe, which sickened 146 people, including 30 who died.

Kendall spent the first several weeks of her life in an incubator, fighting off an infection contracted when her mother ate tainted melon traced to Jensen Farms of Holly, Colo.

She’s strong enough now to sleep in her own crib in the house where big sister Madison, 4, loves to color pictures of Santa.

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the outbreak over this month, and the rest of the world seems poised to move on.

But for Kendall and her family, the impact of the foodborne illness caused by a summer snack is just beginning.

“Right now they don’t know what’s going to happen to her in the long term,” said Michelle Wakley-Paciorek, Kendall’s 41-year-old mother. “We were told she could have mental and or physical delays.”

Kendall was one of three newborns diagnosed with listeria infections in the outbreak that largely affected the elderly, according to the CDC. Four pregnant women became ill; one had a miscarriage.

For now, there’s no sign of serious trouble, other than the feeding tube that runs into Kendall’s stomach because the baby has had difficulty eating.

Jonathan Adams for msnbc.com

Dad Dave Paciorek, sister Madison and mom Michelle Wakley-Paciorek are grateful to bring baby Kendall home from the hospital in time for Christmas.

With help, she’s gained weight, now topping 7 pounds, up from 3 pounds, 11 ounces when she arrived suddenly on Sept. 21.

That was a week after the federal Food and Drug Administration announced a voluntary recall of the entire crop of fresh, whole cantaloupe from Jensen Farms.

But for Kendall and her mom, it was already too late.  

“We’re thinking I ate cantaloupe sometime in the first three to four weeks of August,” Wakley recalled. “I ate it probably multiple times. You try to eat better because you’re pregnant.”

Wakley never became violently ill. Instead, she suffered headaches, muscle aches, fever and chills for several weeks before she started having contractions during a pedicure.

“I couldn’t even believe I was in labor,” said Wakley, who was rushed to an emergency department and given drugs to halt delivery.  

Despite the effort, Kendall was born hours later, but so small and sick that doctors feared for her life.

Blood tests later revealed that both mother and baby were infected with listeria later traced to the tainted Colorado cantaloupe.

The months since then have been a blur of hospital rooms, doctors’ visits and worried conversations about Kendall’s future.

“You almost panic because they tell you about all kinds of learning disabilities and other problems,” she said. “It’s been like an emotional roller-coaster.”

It’s not clear whether Wakley can continue working, or whether she’ll need to quit her job to care for Kendall and her sister full-time. Her husband, Dave Paciorek, 41, is a senior manager at Federal Express.

The family has hired Seattle food safety lawyer Bill Marler, to represent them in a private lawsuit to make sure their daughter gets any care she needs. Marler said he has about 45 clients with cases tied to the Jensen Farms outbreak, including families of 10 of the people who died.

So far, Kendall Paciorek is the youngest victim he represents, Marler said. "I think there are probably dozens of those cases out there," he added.

Food and Drug Administration inspectors found that the outbreak was traced to dirty equipment, faulty sanitation and bad storage practices at the Colorado farm.

That’s especially galling to Michelle Wakley, who said she’s gotten over the “why me?” phase of shock about her daughter’s illness. Even as she prepares to celebrate Christmas with Kendall at home, she finds it hard to hide her frustration that simple sanitation could have saved her family such heartache.

“It’s reckless. It’s something that could have been prevented,” Wakley said. “No one should have to go through this.”

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