From patty to potty

Published: Monday | December 23, 2013 Comments 0

By Garth A. Rattray

The apprentice pastry maker wasn't feeling well. He was sniffling and his forehead hurt but the busy Christmas season demanded his presence at work. He began feeling a few irritating tickles in his nostrils and throat as he changed out of his street clothes and into his immaculate uniform.

His eyes became runny and his urge to sneeze reached a sudden and irrepressible crescendo. Normally, that would not have been too bad, but he was carrying a tray of freshly baked and cooling patties from which the crush of noon-day fast-food customers was going to be served.

He knew all about workplace hygiene - the washing of hands, clean utensils, covering open wounds and so on - so he did his best to stifle the sneeze, and when that inevitably failed, he turned his head away from the tray that he was transporting. The sneeze propelled several thriving colonies of staphylococcus aureus bacteria from his nostrils at over 100 miles per hour. Airborne, they floated around encapsulated inside invisible droplets.

There was no discernible splatter, but some of the miniscule (bacteria laden) droplets eventually landed on the trays. Laying unseen on several patties, they were transported into famished hands that, in turn, transported them into famished mouths.

The staph were happy campers, they gushed down their host's throat and swirled around impervious to the stomach's hostile environment. The bacteria oozed toxins that interacted with the inner lining of the host's gut in a malevolent way. Within a few hours they made their presence known.

The cells that line the gut were no match for the onslaught of the toxins and the physical presence of the bacteria. The toxins attacked the tight junctions of the lining cells and also caused the outpouring of chloride ions followed by sodium and, eventually, potassium. These elements pull water into the gut lumen in a powerful way. Staph and its toxin also caused inflammation of the gut lining.

Healthy gut lining cells usually reabsorb enormous amounts of fluid that is dumped in the lumen, but sick lining cells cannot perform that essential function and this result in profound diarrhoea. The poisonous staph causes malaise, headache, nausea, retching, vomiting, diarrhoea and severe abdominal cramps.

By now, the fast-food aficionado was sitting on the potty with a trash bin in hand and painfully spouting copiously from both ends. His absolute misery lasted all night, it obliterated all pleasure that his fast-food lunch provided earlier that day.

Weak, unsteady, wracked with severe episodic cramps, he swore off eating fast food and prayed to the god of pastry for a quick relief. But his prayers went unanswered for a while. The colicky pains, vomiting and diarrhoea slowly abated and the symptoms disappeared in about two days.

The unwitting and unwilling host was smart enough to imbibe large volumes of clear fluids rich in reconstituting electrolytes. Although eating triggered some amount of diarrhoea, he adhered to a light diet devoid of too much spices and seasoning. He ate small amounts often because his ailing gutlining needed the energy to repair itself and recover.

If his symptoms had gone beyond three days he planned to seek professional medical help. A stool culture would have been done to ascertain the identity of the invading bacteria. But, the host recovered although he remained somewhat jaded for a few days.

It's very unfortunate that the apprentice pastry maker didn't simply call in sick when he began feeling as if he was coming down with something. And, if he had just gone home when he felt worse, all this would have been averted.

Anyone nursing a cold or flu and involved in any stage of preparing any food must stay away from work until completely recovered. Infecting others, especially during this festive season, is unconscionable.

Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Email feedback to and

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