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A South African woman who was temporarily paralyzed after being diagnosed with listeriosis has described how she doesn’t recognize the person staring back in the mirror.

Petra Bischoff was admitted to the hospital in May 2017 and diagnosed with Listeria meningitis.

She was in the ICU for nearly a month with 20 days on ventilator support. Petra went into a coma and was paralyzed when she woke up. The paralysis extends to Petra’s vocal cords, which makes it difficult for her to speak for any length of time.

‘To be a baby at 69 isn’t easy’
Petra, 71, said listeriosis has ruined her life and that of her daughter.

Petra in hospital after being diagnosed with listeriosis

“I was a very active and happy woman and I cared about my appearance and my health. I ate healthily and exercised regularly. I liked to appear well-groomed and dressed. All of that changed,” she told Food Safety News.

“I was ill two months beforehand and we didn’t know what was wrong. I was feverish, with muscle pains and headaches, an upset tummy and I ended up in hospital. To be a baby at 69 isn’t easy. When I look in the mirror I look at a strange person. I don’t know this person.”

The listeriosis outbreak began at the start of 2017 and was declared over in September 2018 with 1,065 confirmed cases and 218 deaths. It was traced in March 2018 to a ready-to-eat processed meat product called polony made at a plant in Polokwane run by Enterprise Foods, which is owned by Tiger Brands.

Corne, Petra’s only child, said she noticed something was wrong as her mum was very run down and not like she used to be. The pair live together in Cape Town.

“All of a sudden she started being very tired and lethargic and didn’t want to do anything, just lie down. My mum has more energy than me and she is 30 years older but that did change a month or two before May you could see she was starting to become just despondent with everything and we couldn’t figure out what was wrong.”

Re-learning to walk and talk
Petra was in hospital and rehabilitation for three months including the time on ICU mostly in a coma, one month on a hospital ward and a month in another hospital for rehab.

“In the hospital they rehabilitated her and taught her how to speak, walk and eat again. I visited her every day, I was there more than I was anywhere else. She had to learn everything new because the doctor had explained if your body lies still for so long all the muscle mass goes, so they had to build the muscle mass and retrain the body to do everything. She was very frustrated, angry and stressed. It was very taxing on her, it still is,” said Corne.

Photo of Petra before she got listeriosis. Taken for business cards for interior design company

“She can’t hear or speak very well due to the damaged vocal cords, her eyesight is very bad so she doesn’t have that quality of life. She doesn’t have good mobility and walks very slowly, her hands sometimes cramp up and we have a full time carer here every day. She’s far better than what she was but it’s still not so that I can leave her alone as sometimes she gets dizzy and bumps into things and she bruises and bleeds easily.”

Petra trained as a color and line consultant in the fashion industry. After working in the real estate industry for 25 years she planned to direct her attention toward her love of interior design and start a business. Petra had bought specialized software to present 3D renderings of designs to clients, and done a course in home staging and property styling.

These plans have been abandoned and Corne lost her job after taking time off to support her mother. She now works in skills development but also used to be in property.

Lifestyle impact
Corne said she has been left mostly alone to deal with her mum’s illness and the heavy financial burden has involved selling property.

“Because she is now a full time responsibility I don’t really go out a lot any more, I was very sociable but now I prefer to stay here to keep an eye on her. I’ve lost quite a few friends as nobody wants to visit someone who is not 100 percent well and fun. This has isolated us in some ways because a lot of her friends don’t know how to cope as she can’t do all the activities she used to with them.

“My mum had a lot of friends and now she has one friend left who is in the medical profession, she is a retired nurse, but the others are few and far in-between to come visit. It is because she gets tired very quickly, her voice goes, she can’t hear them well or walk for long periods of time, so she can’t go out as often and everywhere she used to.”

Corne had not heard of Listeria before being told of the diagnosis by a specialized physician but the pair ate cold cut meats regularly.

“Back then I would buy once a week what we called a mixed packet of the olive loaf and I would take some with the polony and some with the peppers in and curry brawn so there was a variety that she could put on her sandwiches in the day if she was at home. Every week we would buy cold cuts. We will not buy or eat any processed meats now, if we want something like ham I will buy gammon, cook it and cut it up.”

Bearing responsibility: ‘I didn’t get my mum back’

A few months ago. Petra with her carer.

Tiger Brands should bear responsibility after they put the public in danger, according to Corne.

“Apart from the fact so many people have died it is also the quality of life for those who contracted listeriosis is so bad. If I look at my mum, I didn’t get my mum back. So they should take responsibility for this and the Listeria in their plant. They should have pulled those products so people wouldn’t buy it,” she said.

“Tiger Brands bears the biggest responsibility but our government and the health department should also be brought to book for this as well because they obviously didn’t do all the tests that needed to be done to check the health and safety of those plants.”

Corne said the future at the moment is looking pretty dire.

“Her medical costs between the carer and the medication, vitamins and minerals to keep her going are high, as it compromised her immune system. It has affected everything. So financially it has ruined us. I couldn’t finish my degree because I have so many costs to cover that I can’t still pay for my studies so my career path ended as well,” she said.

“It is also a big emotional burden because I don’t ever know in the morning when I go if I am going to be phoned if she is not alright, does she need to go to hospital, she is ill a lot and depressed a lot which makes me depressed a lot, so it has diminished our quality of life and made us withdraw socially.”

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