Mom put nacho cheese on her Doritos. Three weeks later, she’s still in the hospital.

The Valley Oak Food and Fuel gas station in Walnut Grove has been linked to five cases of botulism, with another three probable cases and one suspect case, Sacramento County officials said.
The Valley Oak Food and Fuel gas station in Walnut Grove has been linked to five cases of botulism, with another three probable cases and one suspect case, Sacramento County officials said. scaiola@sacbee.com

Lavinia Kelly hasn’t been able to speak or breathe on her own since she was hospitalized three weeks ago with botulism, a rare form of food poisoning that she believes she contracted after eating nacho-cheese sauce sold at a Sacramento area gas station. Now, the Sacramento woman is suing the gas station due to her ongoing ordeal.

The California Department of Public Health is investigating the cases of 10 people with botulism, all of whom are currently hospitalized, the department announced Friday. The state agency is working with four local public health departments on the investigation, but will not reveal what counties the patients live in. They believe the outbreak is linked to nacho cheese sauce that was served at Valley Oak Food and Fuel gas station, but the exact cause of the poisoning is still under investigation, officials said.

Kelly, 33, was driving home from work as an inventory manager on April 21 when she pulled over at the gas station’s small market for a snack. She picked up a bag of Doritos chips and drizzled them with nacho-cheese sauce, said her partner, Ricky Torres.

Within hours, the usually upbeat mother of three felt fatigued, he said. The next morning she complained of double vision and went to Sutter Medical Center, but was sent home hours later. By that evening, she was vomiting and having difficulty breathing, Torres said. He drove her back to the emergency room.

The next day, doctors ventilated Kelly and admitted her to the intensive care unit, where she’s been since. The neurotoxins have affected her motor control to the point that she can’t open her eyes, Torres said. When Kelly wants to see who has entered the room, he and other loved ones lift her eyelids open, sometimes using tape to keep them up.

“We’re just trying to figure out what happened,” Torres said. “Now I spend most of time at the hospital, I’m just trying to get answers. … She’s been doing good, and we just don’t understand why this happened over a bag of chips and nacho cheese. Really? How does that happen?”

“(The gas station) should have been more aware. They’re handling that stuff every day. I know they probably didn’t make the cheese per se, but they handle that stuff in the store.”

Earlier this month, county health officials temporarily revoked the gas station’s permit to sell food and drink. Employees on site declined to comment last week, and the business could not be reached by telephone Tuesday.

Botulism is a rare but serious illness that occurs when botulinum bacteria multiply, usually in moist, low-oxygen environments. The bacteria releases a nerve toxin, which causes gradual paralysis and sometimes death. Common symptoms include vomiting, blurred vision, difficulty breathing and muscle weakness.

People who consumed prepared food from the gas station, particularly nacho-cheese sauce, from April 23 through May 5 and have symptoms should contact their medical provider immediately.

The family filed a lawsuit against the gas station in Sacramento County Superior Court on Tuesday for negligence, product liability and breach of implied warranty.

Bruce Clark, an attorney at Seattle-based food safety law firm Marler Clark who is working on Kelly’s case, said most botulism outbreaks are associated with home canning, with occurrences at a store extremely rare. The U.S. saw 161 confirmed cases of botulism in 2014, only 15 of which were food-borne, according to the most recent report on botulism from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Only human mistakes create the environment for botulinum toxin to form,” Clark said.We will use the lawsuit to learn more about the source of the food product that was contaminated. The source of the food product may be unrelated to the gas station; it could be a commercially made, pre-packaged item. That’s an essential question.”

The firm’s team has not yet estimated how much in damages the family will seek, but said past botulism cases have been resolved for millions of dollars.

“They’re acquiring astounding medical bills,” Clark said.

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola