An outbreak of E. coli claimed its first fatality Tuesday, a longtime area school superintendent known for his dedication to children.
Lowell Draffen, 73, of Germantown, was one of at least 75 people sickened after consuming food served at a July 3 customer appreciation picnic at Neff’s Lawn Care in German Twp. He retired in 2010 as superintendent of Trotwood-Madison City Schools, and had also been superintendent at Valley View and Mad River schools.
Two others remain hospitalized — a 4-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy. A total of 14 people have been hospitalized, and health officials still do not know the cause of the contamination.
Lab tests confirmed the same strain of E. coli in 18 people.
The number of people sickened is “unusually large” for an E. coli outbreak, said Bill Wharton, health department spokesman.
Draffen was hospitalized after developing hemolytic uremic syndrome, a complication in which a toxin produced by E. coli bacteria destroys red blood cells, leading to anemia and kidney damage. It can cause kidney failure. An autopsy was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
Tracing the source of the outbreak is a major undertaking, Montgomery County Health Commissioner Jim Gross said, because of the sheer number of people who brought in food and the number of people who became ill.
An estimated 300 people attended the picnic, and many carried in food to share. The hosts also supplied and cooked some of the meat served that day.
“It’s not like an outbreak involving a specific food service establishment,” Gross said. “It’s completely different. In addition to the people who are sick, there are all the people who prepared the foods. There’s so many different variables and it’s extremely important that we are as thorough as we can be. And if we reach a conclusion, we want to reach the correct conclusion. At this point in time, thoroughness is more important than rushing to a conclusion.”
Bill Marler, managing partner for Marler Clark, a Seattle law firm that specializes in foodborne illness outbreaks, said he found it “a little perplexing” that investigators hadn’t identified the source of the outbreak three weeks after the event.
Marler handled lawsuits filed after a 1993 E. coli outbreak tied to 73 Jack in the Box restaurants that sickened 700 people in Washington state, California, Nevada and Idaho. Four people died in that outbreak, which was linked to beef that wasn’t cooked to the proper temperature.
“It’s obviously a significant, significant outbreak you’re dealing with,” Marler said.
With a carry-in event, tracing the sources of the food — not just the people who prepared it, but where they bought it and where the food itself originated — takes a long time, Wharton said. One of the complicating factors is that there’s no food left from the event that investigators can test for E. coli.
Public Health is working with the Ohio departments of health and agriculture as the investigation continues.
As news of Draffen’s death spread, colleagues remembers him as a professional and a great leader.
Draffen retired — for the second time — in 2010 as superintendent at Trotwood-Madison Schools. The district’s state report cards rose dramatically in the district under his leadership. He had previously served as superintendent at Valley View for four years, and Mad River for 18 years. Draffen’s family members had no comment Tuesday.
Kevin Bell, current superintendent of Trotwood-Madison, worked as the district’s curriculum director several years ago with Draffen. “He was a really knowledgeable individual, great leader, good person to work for. Always would provide good sound advice for you,” Bell said. “He was very easy-going, caring, but still had expectations. He’d reach out if he needed you for something, but he was always there for you as well. He was just an exceptional superintendent of schools.”
He said Dreffen “had a wealth of knowledge that he brought to the job, and he imparted it to others.”
Rexann Wagner, now retired, took over as superintendent at Trotwood-Madison after Draffen retired. She served as a director and then assistant superintendent under him.
She called his passing “a sad day.”
“Salt of the earth guy, just a very fine individual, Christian man, very dedicated to kids,” she said. “He was just a joy, just a joy to work with.”
Staff writer Marc Katz contributed to this report.