E. Coli Victim Leaves Legacy Of Awareness

A week before he became ill with the E. coli infection that eventually killed him, 16-month-old Riley Detwiler took his first five steps alone.

That little-boy distance - from the playpen to the television - was huge in his life and perhaps symbolic of what he was to become in an epidemic that sickened 500 people and killed three children.

"His impact . . . crossed an entire nation and crossed the border into Canada. . . . It's incredible," his father, Darin Detwiler, said yesterday.

Riley died last Saturday of complications from E. coli 0157:H7 infection. His legacy is enormous, say Darin and his wife, Vicki.

Riley and other victims have created a huge national awareness:

-- Of a relatively little-known foodborne illness.

-- Of the simple hand-washing that can prevent its spread from person to person.

-- Of inadequate government meat-inspection requirements.

-- Of yet another example of how our health-care system fails to reach so many who need help.

Perhaps more important, Riley's death should also remind every parent of a harsh reality:

"Make sure that with your children, you love them every day because you never know what may happen," Darin Detwiler said.

Riley Detwiler became ill in late January after being exposed in a Bellingham day-care center to another child who was infected.

The other child, an 18-month-old boy, had eaten a contaminated Jack in the Box hamburger but had a mild bout with the illness.

Riley died of respiratory failure after two weeks of efforts to save his ravaged body at Children's Hospital in Seattle.

Just two days before his son became ill, Darin Detwiler lost his job with a Bellingham appliance store. The family had no health insurance.

But, during the struggle, the Detwilers' articulate accounts of their boy's plight in news reports stimulated a response that is still almost overwhelming to them.

Grocery bags full of cards and letters fill the young couple's Bellingham home. They've come from schoolchildren and teachers, from hundreds of supportive parents, from a huge variety of people who just wanted to say they cared.

Many of the children - in addition to wishing Riley would get well - said they would be careful to wash their hands. Teachers said they would try to get better hand-washing facilities at their schools.

When Vicki Detwiler called long distance to check on a credit-card account, the service representative began crying when she heard her name, then offered her sympathy.

An 11-page letter from an Alabama woman described how her son had successfully battled hemolytic uremic syndrome, the serious complication of E. coli infection. She said her husband, a physician, is now researching the illness.

The Detwilers talked to President Clinton during his televised town meeting a week ago, telling him of the need for better meat inspections and a health-care system for all.

Last Sunday night, Clinton called to offer his condolences, and the Detwilers asked to be involved in the issues they had mentioned. He said he would get back to them.

"He didn't speak to us as the president, but as a father," said Darin Detwiler. "He left my wife and me very touched by his words."

Besides the town meeting, the Detwilers also have been on other television shows, including interviews on CNN and "Oprah."

Darin Detwiler quickly lists the origin of only a portion of the supportive calls and letters: New Jersey, New York, Florida, California, Canada, a man on vacation on Maui, a man attending his elderly father's wedding in Dallas.

Why such a huge response?

For one, the Detwilers throughout the ordeal were extraordinarily well-informed and articulate.

Darin, a former submarine nuclear-reactor mechanic, and Vicki, a new attorney, questioned physicians about every aspect of their son's treatment.

For another, they repeatedly expressed outrage that eating hamburgers at a fast-food restaurant could sicken so many and kill at least two children. (A third child's death from E. coli has not been linked to the hamburgers.)

"It's something that people have taken for granted as being safe . . . but it caused the death of a very young child," Darin Detwiler said.

Foodmaker, parent company of Jack in the Box, has said it will pay hospital expenses of each person who became ill from their hamburgers - either directly or indirectly through person-to-person contact.

The Detwilers, meanwhile, are wondering how to pay for the array of other incidental expenses they've had since Riley became ill. More than $5,000 has come in the letters and cards.

----------------------------- HOW TO HELP ----------------------------- -- A fund has been established to help Darin and Vicki Detwiler: the Riley Detwiler Fund, People's State Bank, 1333 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham, WA. 98225.