Lancaster Pastor: "The Very Basis Of Our Belief Will See Us Through"
Eleven people remain hospitalized after contracting botulism at a church potluck dinner. For some, recovery will be a long road. We talked with their pastor about how they’re doing.
Sunday morning, April 19, by all accounts, was an ordinary day at Cross Pointe Free Will Baptist Church in Lancaster. Pastor Bill Pitts opened with a passage from Romans: “All things work together for good for those who love the Lord.” Pitts parlayed the scripture into his sermon titled “The Lifetime of Moments.”
“I mentioned that most of our moments in life are what I’d call very mundane," he said.
But Pitts told his congregation that most everyone, at some point in their life, will have what he called a “defining moment.”
“I never thought 15 minutes later was the beginning of our defining moment, their defining moment, my defining moment. Because after that defining moment, nothing is ever the same.”
After the service, about 80 people gathered for a potluck. Hidden among the dishes was one contaminated with botulism. Testing and interviews led the state to conclude it came from potato salad with home-canned potatoes.
Pitts was in Chicago visiting family when he received calls that people were being admitted to the local hospital.
“So when the third one came in from our church, we knew something very, very dangerous was in line," Pitts recalled.
By Tuesday night, a woman in her 50s was dead from suspected botulism. Since then, doctors confirmed 20 others have the rare illness which can lead to paralysis of the respiratory system and other muscles.
Pitts has visited hospitalized parishioners daily. He said many are making extraordinary strides, but some remain in “critical, but stable” condition.
"I remember seeing one lady who was on the ventilator one day; I came back and she is now walking over to someone else in the ICU room," he said. "I remember walking in and she had a smile on her face. The day before she had a respirator on and she couldn’t even communicate.”
Pitts said he believes all the healing comes from God.
The patients received an anti-toxin, a drug which stops it from spreading.
Recovery is a long road for many people with the illness, according to infectious diseases experts.
The botulism toxin destroys nerve receptors – or “switches” – that cause muscles to contract or “work.” Nationwide Children’s Hospital infectious diseases physician Dennis Cunningham said the receptors grow back, but it doesn’t happen overnight.
"It takes time, weeks or months, for the muscle fibers and nerves to grow a new receptor. And that’s why it can take so to recover. You basically have to rebuild these," Cunningham said.
People who have been on ventilators for weeks lose muscle mass and face extensive physical and occupational therapy. Some botulism patients continue to have labored breathing, often treated like asthma. And some people never return to normal.
For those in Lancaster, Pastor Pitts said some have returned to work. Others aren’t quite ready to resume daily routines.
Pitts said he has been in contact with the person who made the potato salad that sickened so many. He wouldn’t elaborate about their condition, physical or psychological. Pitts would only say anyone could have been the person who brought the the dish.
“The message is, is that asking why may not be answered.”
Pitts didn’t eat any food at the potluck that day. He said he was on a diet and too busy mingling with church members anyway. But not consuming the food means he avoided illness and was able to continue his role as pastor.
“As I look at this and look back, you know sometimes you feel like a leader, I wish I was stricken, you know, because I feel so horrible about them," he said. "I almost want to fellowship with that suffering. That’s what Christ did with us.”
But Pitts also wonders if this was his defining moment, as he talk about in church a week ago.
“It’s very possible that I was born for this moment. That this is my defining moment," Pitts reflected. "That I can have all the ministry that I’ve done in the past, maybe is just for this moment and for this time.”
The church has held four or five of pot lucks a year. For now, it has suspended its potluck tradition. Pitts said this has been very traumatic experience for his church.
When asked if he’s worried about a potential lawsuit in the future he said he’s not. He said he hasn’t contacted a lawyer.
“The very basis of our belief will see us through," Pitt smiled.
Information about ways to help Lancaster botulism patients can be found here.