Sun Times staff
Aleasha Reich, a statuesque 17-year-old young woman, stands as a proud Walkerton success.
The reigning ambassador of the Walkerton Little Royal Fair was once fighting for her life, amid this town’s tainted water cover-up in May 2000.
She and a younger boy were the first two Walkerton patients seen by then-Owen Sound Dr. Kristen Hallett, who set in motion the hunt for the source of E. coli poisoning.
While Aleasha suffered kidney failure in a London hospital bed, doctors worried she might have a fatal stroke. But the seven-year-old recovered with no apparent physical injury and left hospital after two weeks.
Aleasha’s participation in the seven-year Walkerton Health Study found no lasting physical health concerns.
“We’re very thankful,” said Aleasha’s mother, Cathy. She wears a ring with five stones, representing the month of May when disaster struck, “to remind us how lucky we are.”
But Aleasha suffers from anxiety and migraines. She strives to feel in control of situations, which a psychiatrist told her is a normal reaction to her E. coli traumatization.
So the lasting effect on Aleasha has been emotional.
She has a phobia about needles, after receiving around 160 injections because of her illness. It was “a matter of holding her down” to give her an injection, said her mom, Cathy, who Aleasha calls “my rock.”
And Aleasha’s alarm as a child at anyone drinking tap water still compels her immediate family not to drink it.
“I know it’s fine now and that it wouldn’t hurt me but I just can’t get myself to get a glass of it,” she said.
There is one big medical uncertainty remaining. She has been told she may be unable to bear children because of the E. coli poisoning.
Aleasha is graduating from high school this spring, then it’s off to Conestoga College to study early childhood education next fall.
Her winning speech to Little Royal judges was about the benefits of small-town life, with caring people and productive farms. If it turns out she lives her whole life in Walkerton, she’ll do so happily, she said.
“I think the town in general has come back very well from it. Everyone is very supportive of one another,” Aleasha said.
“I consider myself to be a pretty positive person just ’cause I know sort of what can happen at its worst. And I’ve gotten so lucky,” Aleasha said.
It’s hard to believe the ordeal happened to her, she said. “It doesn’t anger me. It’s sad. It’s hard to think about.”
Tenth anniversary ceremonies were held Sunday at the Walkerton Heritage Water Garden, where water gushed over rocks and breezes rustled leaves in the trees, one of which Aleasha planted.
The park is dedicated to the “indomitable spirit” found in Walkerton’s people, a rock’s inscription says. It’s also for all who suffered and died.
But the Reichs didn’t attend. Instead, they spent that day with Aleasha’s grandmother, who celebrated her 80th birthday.
“We chose to celebrate rather than dwell on the past,” Cathy Reich said.