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Home Canning Hobby Leads to Near-Fatal Medical Emergency

Austin Jenkins

Home canning is regaining popularity as part of the local food movement. If done right, families can enjoy home grown fruits, vegetables and even meat all through the winter. But if done wrong, it can be devastating, if not deadly.

A lawyer for the state of Washington recently learned that lesson the hard way.

On the Friday before Mother’s Day this year, Mike O’Connell was looking forward to spending the weekend with his wife at their home in the Seattle area. During the week, he lives alone in Olympia where he works. But he woke that morning with the strangest affliction: double vision.

“There were two of everything and I had an awful time just shaving and getting ready for work,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell, 67, is chief counsel to Washington’s Legislative Ethics Board. He suspected the double vision was related to some laser eye surgery he recently had. He managed to make it into work, but soon went home. That evening, he experienced more strange symptoms.

“My legs felt rubbery,” he said.

The next morning, he felt even worse. He was bumping into walls. He called his wife. 

“I told her, ‘You know, I’m going to stop by the ER on the way up just so somebody can tell me I’m okay and I’m not having a stroke,”’ he said.

At the hospital, that’s exactly what they thought he was having. He heard “stroke in progress” called over the intercom. Suddenly he was surrounded by nurses and doctors. O’Connell’s wife arrived. Test results started coming back. There was no evidence of stroke.

“I didn’t know enough to bring up the fact that I had eaten canned meat,” said O’Connell.

Canned meat. You see, the night before O’Connell woke up with double vision, he had eaten some elk meat from a hunting trip. He canned it himself about a week earlier.

“Borrowed a pressure cooker, used an old family recipe for canning,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell’s mother had canned everything when he was a kid. He wanted to recapture a bit of his childhood. But things started going wrong from the start.

I had way too much meat to deal with,” said O’Connell.

The pressure cooker was too small. O’Connell had already browned the meat in a cast iron pan. So he decided to shortcut the process. Once the jars sealed airtight he would take them out of the pressure cooker and start a new batch. The next day, he heard a pop in the pantry.

“Which I remember as a child was the signal for you’ve lost the seal,” said O’Connell.

O’Connell found the jar with the popped seal, put it in the fridge and ate it the next day. He says it was delicious. The following week he heard another lid pop. Just as he had before, O’Connell found the jar and stuck it in the fridge. And a few days later he ate it for supper.

“This time, it didn’t work out,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell had an upset stomach in the night, but he didn’t connect it to having eaten the meat. He says growing up, he didn’t know anyone who got food poisoning from home canned foods.

At the hospital, once doctors ruled out a stroke, O’Connell was sent home. But he was back in the hospital a few hours later. Now he was having difficulty swallowing. The next morning, Mother’s Day, O’Connell’s daughter, Kelly Weisfield, drove to Olympia to see her dad.

“His voice was very slurred and his eyelids were droopy, but he was sitting up in bed and he was communicative,” Weisfield said.

As the day progressed though, O’Connell’s condition got markedly worse.

“By now, my eyes were closed. My strength—it was just amazing how quickly that went,” O’Connell said.

His breathing was getting shallow. Daughter Weisfield was frustrated with the lack of answers and scared. She called a doctor she knew, a neurosurgeon. He ran through a short checklist of things to rule out. That list included a disease first identified in the 18th century: botulism. Weisfield looked it up online.

“It just made the hair on the back of my neck stand up because it was every single symptom just laid out exactly what my dad was experiencing,” she said.

Botulism is a paralyzing illness caused by what Centers for Disease Control calls the most potent toxin known to science. It’s rare; there were only 20 foodborne cases nationwide in 2011, just one in Washington state last year.

Improperly home canned foods are the leading culprit, especially those low in acid like green beans and, yes, meats. Weisfield called her mom who had just left the hospital.

“And I said, ‘Mom, turn around. You got to go back and tell them to look into this,’” Weisfield said.

Weisfield was relieved, but also terrified that it was too late. Her father could hardly move now. He was having more and more difficulty breathing. The hospital had parked a ventilator outside his room. Weisfield didn’t know what to tell her 10-year-old son, who is very close to his grandfather.

“First thing Connor said was, ‘Are we still going to go on our fishing trip?’ And I could never answer him, because I didn’t know,” she said.

The doctors didn’t even wait to confirm botulism. They ordered a dose of anti-toxin from the CDC. Now the medical mystery was solved. But how did O’Connell get botulism?

Remember he stopped cooking the jars of elk meat when he heard the seals lock in place. Washington State University food safety expert Zena Edwards says that was O’Connell’s nearly fatal mistake.

“All that indicated was it had now become an anaerobic environment, an oxygen-free environment,” Edwards said.

And that’s the strange thing about the bacteria that causes botulism. It thrives when deprived of oxygen. By shortcutting the cooking time, O’Connell failed to kill the bacteria. Instead, he sealed it into the perfect environment for it to produce the poisonous toxin.

Edwards says what happened to O’Connell reaffirms two cardinal rules of home canning: “plan before you can” and “when it doubt, throw it out.”

After receiving the anti-toxin, O’Connell transferred to Swedish Hospital in Seattle for rehab. It took just days for the Botulism to paralyze O’Connell. The recovery would be painfully slow.

“My eyes were the first thing to come back. I still walk with difficulty and use a cane. I have no taste with the exception of chocolate, so I buy chocolate ensure, chocolate mints and night before last, I found where they sell chocolate wine so I had some of that, too,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell doesn’t know if or when he’ll get his taste back. Before the botulism, he was fit and active—a hunter and avid hiker. His daughter says it’s hard to see her dad like this.

“I’m so grateful that he’s made it through. And I’m so sad that he’s gone through all this, and he’s not the same,” Weisfield said.

O’Connell was able to keep that promise he’d made months ago to his grandson to go fishing together on the upper Columbia River. As for future home canning projects, his family has made it clear that’s not going to happen.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.