Sun Times staff
Long may Kody Hammell run.
Ten years after Walkerton’s E. coli water poisoning left the tyke comatose and in kidney failure, the 11-year-old’s survival is a triumph of perseverance and medicine.
Amid the immediate crisis his mother, Tracey Hammell, drew on advice from her mother.
“My mom always said God wouldn’t give you anything you couldn’t handle,” Hammell recalled recently in the dining room of her country home near Hanover.
“So I thought, ‘Well then he won’t take him from me because I couldn’t handle it.'”
Kody’s gut-wrenching story was told by Justice Dennis O’Connor in his exhaustive report into the causes of one of Canada’s worst public health disasters, in May, 2000.
Cattle manure containing a deadly form of E. coli bacteria was washed by heavy rainfall into a town well, a well the Ministry of the Environment warned was vulnerable to contamination when built in 1978.
O’Connor recounted in heart-pounding detail Kody’s mom’s discovery of her son’s bloody diapers during the Victoria Day long weekend. He was vomiting, eyes rolling backward.
The hospital was backed up with sick people and Kody couldn’t be seen for hours. Advised to make him drink, with a syringe if necessary, Tracey Hammell got one and “shoved water down his throat.”
Hammell had already confirmed the water was safe with Stan Koebel, who was in charge of the town water system. She’d babysat his kids growing up. He and his first wife were good friends of her parents.
Kody was dehydrated and all he wanted was water.
“Kody’s throwing up and I saw that you guys are like pumping the water by our house. Like is the water OK?” she asked Koebel.
“Yep, yeah, it’s fine,” Koebel replied.
He would later be sentenced to one year in jail. His brother and foreman Frank received nine months house arrest for negligence in the operation of the water system.
After three days in Owen Sound hospital, Kody was rushed by air ambulance to London. He began to suffer heart failure, went on blood-filtering dialysis and underwent surgery twice, ultimately emerging from near-death.
He spent six weeks in bed and was released from London hospital on his second birthday. His family was profoundly relieved.
Today the husky 11-year-old loves hockey and hardball and jumping his bicycle over ramps at the end of his driveway, in the country east of Hanover.
His sports trophies and medals are displayed in his bedroom and elsewhere at home. He wants to play in the National Hockey League, or fix motorcycles when he grows up.
He listened quietly at the dining room table as his mother answered questions about the tragedy.
Kody’s story was one of three O’Connor selected to represent the personal suffering caused by Walkerton’s E. coli contamination.
They showed the impact on human lives of the failure to safeguard this essential element of life: pure, reliable water.
E. coli O157:H7 was most threatening to the very young and the frail seniors, who were at risk of kidney failure and strokes.
O’Connor also told the story of Norm Borth, a 66-year-old who survived the immediate calamity, all the more frightening because he knew people had died.
He told how Betty Trushinski, a 56-year-old “energetic, enthusiastic and vibrant” woman died “hooked up to machines and tubes in a coma.”
Many who shared personal stories with O’Connor in July 2000 said they were left “to feel unsafe in their own community.” Their trust was shattered.
Justice O’Connor found water operator deception, lax and complacent oversight locally and provincially, inadequate training, budget cuts in a government culture averse to enacting new regulations, and hasty government privatization of water testing were among the contributing factors.
The inquiry’s recommendations produced changes to safe-water practices and regulations and ongoing source-water protection planning across Ontario.
Mary Rose Raymond, a 2 1/2 year-old, was the the only child among the seven people whose deaths were attributed to the bad water.
Lenore Marie Al, Vera Coe, Evelyn Hussey, Edith Pearson, Laura Eva Rowe and Elizabeth Trushinski also lost their lives because minimum tap water chlorination was not maintained.
Of 33 who developed kidney damage or hemolytic uremic syndrome, in which an E. coli toxin burst primarily blood vessels in the kidneys, 27 were children.
Four remain on medication, including Kody Hammell.
Inclusion of Kody’s story in the Walkerton inquiry report signalled the children of Walkerton would survive the tragedy.
But Kody faces serious and lifelong health problems, which a personal 10-year health study of him attributed to the E. coli disaster, Tracey Hammell said.
The Walkerton Health Study, in which Kody did not participate, followed an initial 4,300 people over seven years. Ultimately, it identified about 3,000 people who got sick from the bad water.
“The vast majority of people, they’ve moved on. Their health is good,” because of ongoing treatment, said Dr. Bill Clark, who headed the 2002-2008 study, which was partially updated last year.
“There is a small minority of people who have significant problems.”
Kody takes pills twice daily to control and stabilize his kidney function. He also developed Type 1 diabetes and gets tired a lot now.
Kody’s mom said complications, like vision problems, limb amputation and further deterioration of his kidney function all threaten Kody’s future health.
“So it worries me,” Tracey Hammell said. “And it just makes our odds for needing a kidney transplant down the road a lot more likely,” she said.
“He hardly has a day go by that he feels well for the whole day,” since that diagnosis two years ago.
Dr. Clark said his study predicts no more people should develop diabetes and it is “extremely unlikely” dialysis would be needed for anyone affected if properly treated, he said.
Despite outward appearances, Kody’s bright-eyed and devoted mother has personal challenges of her own. She continues to receive counselling regularly, though not as often as before.
She misses her hairdressing job, which she left one year ago because Kody often needed her and dropping everything at work wasn’t a reasonable option.
“I couldn’t handle being everywhere he needed me to be. Or I felt bad there was things he wasn’t allowed to do.”
Unless she accompanied him on school trips or to his hockey or ball games, he couldn’t participate, she said.
She didn’t attend Sunday’s 10th anniversary memorial ceremonies in Walkerton. “They’re not happy things for me. And I already deal with this and him on a daily basis.”
An insulin pump keeps Kody’s blood sugar in check. His diet is strictly monitored and he must count his carbohydrate intake, a complicated task for him.
He’s been hospitalized twice after forgetting to do that. One time he fell into a diabetic coma, when his blood-sugar level went haywire.
“A normal child his age would know, OK, I need to test my sugar four times in the day and know what to do about it,” said Tracey.
There’s a sad explanation for why Kody forgets. While in the coma induced by the attacking E. coli bacteria, he suffered a brain injury.
It impairs his memory, ability to anticipate consequences and focus his attention on more than one task. The nature of his impairment also prevents him from understanding a clock face.
Kody struggles in school. For the past few months he has left his Grade 6 classes in the afternoon to work with a tutor.
He is bothered by excessive noise and suffers stress headaches. About six months ago doctors confirmed he has inflammatory arthritis.
But he remains positive.
“He’s excellent,” his mother said. “He never complains. You might hear him once in a blue moon say ‘I wish I wasn’t diabetic anymore.'”
Kody remains a sports junkie but has had to scale back from rep to houseleague hockey. He moved from right-wing to netminder, a concession to his new limitations.
“The days he feels good, he’s awesome,” his mother said. “And the days he doesn’t feel good, he’s a whole different kid out there.”
He gets frustrated he can’t excel like he used to but he keeps going.
“Well, I’m never going to get rid of it. So I just have to put up with it,” Kody said.