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Outbreak News

Hepatitis survivor lucky to be alive

Bill Vidonic

Beaver Valley Times

01/09/2004

BEAVER - Richard Miller will be on anti-rejection medication for the rest of his life to keep his new liver functioning properly.

The 57-year-old said he is struggling to regain the stamina he lost after a liver transplant on Nov. 8, a life-saving procedure made necessary when he contracted hepatitis A after eating at the Chi-Chi's Mexican restaurant in Center Township.

"I lost my liver for no reason at all," Miller said from his Beaver home Thursday.

Yet Miller considers himself one of the lucky ones.

Three people died in the outbreak that sickened 660 people, the virus spread by contaminated Mexican green onions served at the Beaver Valley Mall restaurant. Those who died were Jeffrey Cook, 46, of Aliquippa on Nov. 7; Dineen Wieczorek, 51, of Hopewell Township on Nov. 12; and John Spratt, 46, of Aliquippa on Nov. 14.

So, while Miller faces a future of uncertainty, he is still alive to spend time with his wife of 36 years, Linda, his three children and three grandchildren.

"I feel extremely heartbroken for those three people who died and their families," Miller said Thursday. "I could have been No. 4. The Lord has blessed us."

The Millers ate at Chi-Chi's on Oct. 12, and both of them eventually fell ill. While his wife's illness was not as severe, Richard Miller's health failed to the point where he was hospitalized at The Medical Center, Beaver, on Nov. 6. Two days later, he received a liver transplant at UPMC Presbyterian in Pittsburgh.

Miller has returned home, but little else of his life has returned to normal.

Miller is unable to return to his job as a railroad designer for an Ohio company. He rarely ventures outside, fearful of catching an illness that could devastate his already-weakened body. If his grandchildren have the sniffles, he can't get near them.

He has been unable to attend services at Park Presbyterian Church in Beaver.

"It's a sense of isolation," Miller said.

Miller, who said he was healthy before the hepatitis outbreak, now depends on more than a dozen medications each day.

"If I don't get those drugs, I'm a dead man," Miller said.

Richard Miller said he didn't have a position one way or the other concerning Chi-Chi's announcement to reopen its doors next week.

"Chi-Chi's, like many other businesses, have a business plan that they have to adhere to," Miller said. "We have no vengeance in our hearts."

His wife, however, said she couldn't ever see them eating there again.

"The enjoyment of the meal would be lost," Linda Miller said.

The Millers sued the four companies that either grew or supplied the green onions used at the restaurant. Their attorneys, Bill Marler of Seattle and Jerry Meyers of Pittsburgh, said they expect that a stay imposed in federal bankruptcy court on any suits filed against Chi-Chi's will be lifted by Monday.

Chi-Chi's is operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, and federal law says the company can't be sued without a judge's approval.

Marler wants the stay lifted so that those who filed suit can have access to $51 million in liability insurance that Chi-Chi's carries.

Thursday, Marler gave the couple a check for $19,000, money provided by Chi-Chi's to pay some out-of-pocket expenses they had while Miller was being treated for his illness.

The money isn't a settlement, however.

"The ultimate goal is treating these innocent people fairly," Marler said. "Hopefully the defendants and insurance companies will take a deep breath and realize they need to take care of these people financially."

Bill Vidonic can be reached online at bvidonic@timesonline.com.

©Beaver County Times/Allegheny Times 2004

More on this outbreak: Chi-Chi's Hepatitis A Outbreak

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