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Outbreak News

How going out for 'decent meal' led to transplant for Beaver man

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

By Christopher Snowbeck, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The waves of people turning up sick with hepatitis A have subsided, but at least one of them, Richard Miller, 57 of Beaver, remains in the hospital, struggling to recover from a disease that cost him his liver.

Miller, one of at least 100 people who were admitted to hospitals during the course of this fall's hepatitis A outbreak, underwent a liver transplant more than three weeks ago and his long-term prognosis is unclear.

His sons said Miller had no liver problems before eating at the Beaver Valley Mall Chi-Chi's in Center on Oct. 12. Miller and his wife, Linda, didn't make a habit of dining at the restaurant -- a coupon took them there that day for an after-church lunch.

"We're so focused on my father right now," said Dave Miller, 30, of Philadelphia. "It happened and we've got to get our family back on track."

"It breaks your heart that you could get this from going out to have a decent meal," added Jeff Miller, 33, of Beaver.

Attorneys for the Millers filed a lawsuit yesterday in federal court against four companies that supplied green onions to Chi-Chi's. Scallions are the likely source of the hepatitis A virus at Chi-Chi's.

During the outbreak, two hospitals closest to the restaurant, The Medical Center, Beaver, and Sewickley Valley Hospital, admitted a total of 86 patients with hepatitis A. Eight were transferred to other hospitals for care.

UPMC admitted 11 outbreak patients overall, Allegheny General Hospital admitted nine and Mercy Hospital admitted at least one. St. Clair Hospital and the Cleveland Clinic treated one patient each, while Children's Hospital admitted five.

Children's Hospital was still treating one yesterday, as was UPMC.

Miller got sick on Wednesday, Oct. 29, one day after his wife came down with symptoms that her sons said hit like a ton of bricks.

The Millers were bedridden for days, but it soon became clear that Richard Miller's case was worse. On Monday, Nov. 3, Linda Miller drove her husband to the emergency room at The Medical Center, Beaver, where a test for liver enzyme levels showed that he likely had hepatitis A.

But Miller also learned he wasn't alone. People had been coming to the emergency room for a week with probable cases of hepatitis A.

While he was in the emergency room, Miller received an intravenous saline solution that appeared to provide some relief for a day or so, his sons said. But by Thursday, three days after being admitted, he seemed deathly ill. An ambulance took him back to the Beaver County hospital and he was transferred that night to UPMC.

The initial report that Dave Miller received was that the transfer was merely a precaution, but by Friday morning, the message had changed: His father would need a liver transplant.

When Jeff Miller left the hospital that night, it wasn't clear how quickly an organ would be available for his father. The next 10 to 15 hours were "extremely critical," he recalled medical staff saying.

Around 11:30 p.m., the family learned of a potential donor in Philadelphia. The transplant surgery began around 7 a.m. the next day.

Doctors performed surgery last week to repair damage to his vocal cords. Since the operation, Miller's voice has improved.

"He can actually say phrases and hold a little bit of a conversation, but he labors in doing so," Jeff Miller said.

One of the unknowns is whether Miller suffered a brain injury during the operation, Jeff Miller said.

Richard Miller can walk with assistance and has regular therapy sessions to practice living skills.

"In some ways, it was the worst Thanksgiving we've ever had," Jeff Miller said. "But in other ways, it was the best ever. I've never had something to be so thankful about."

(Christopher Snowbeck can be reached at csnowbeck@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.)

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

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