‘I knew straight away she was dead’ – husband tells of finding his wife lifeless in bed after food poisoning at communion party

Marathon runner and mother-of-one Sandra O’Brien (55) was among 72 people who got sick in outbreak linked to cold cooked turkey supplied by catering company

by Andrew Phelan


A “VIBRANT and healthy” mother of one died of food poisoning after eating contaminated cold cooked turkey at her grand-niece’s communion party, an inquest heard.

Sandra O’Brien (55) died in her bed eight days after contracting salmonella from food provided by outside caterers at the family gathering.

Her husband said his wife had been a marathon runner and told the inquest of his shock at her death, after what was described by a pathologist as a “very rare event”.

Dublin Coroner’s Court heard Ms O’Brien died of acute myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, secondary to salmonella infection.

Hers was the only death in an outbreak of 72 cases linked to parties in north Co Dublin over two days in 2017.

A jury returned a narrative verdict in the case today.

Coroner Dr Clare Keane sympathised with the family on the “devastating and untimely loss” of Ms O’Brien, a “vibrant and healthy woman who was in excellent physical condition prior to her death”.

Ms O’Brien, from Rivervalley, Swords, Co Dublin, died on May 21, 2017, following the consumption of food prepared by a catering company working from O’Dwyers Pub, Strand Road, Portmarnock, Co Dublin.

The court heard the catering company Flanreil Food Services has since been fined for food safety breaches.

Ms O’Brien’s widower Michael O’Brien, a Garda sergeant, said in his deposition he and his wife had been married for 27 years before her death.

On May 13, 2017, they attended their grand-niece’s communion party in Ballyboughal, north Co Dublin. Food was supplied by an outside caterer, he said in the deposition, which was read out to the court.

His wife ate some of the cold meat that was at the party. Two days later, on May 15, they were shopping to purchase clothes for a cruise his wife was going on with family.

She complained of feeling unwell and they went to a cafe to sit down and have a coffee. She still felt unwell and they returned home, where she began to vomit and feel weak. Ms O’Brien went to bed and was sick on a number of occasions, he said.

Mr O’Brien went to work and his wife said she would be OK, but she later called him and said her condition was worse and that their grand-niece was sick in Temple Street hospital.

Mr O’Brien went home to find his wife vomiting, and he took her to Beaumont Hospital.

After a five-hour wait, she was seen by a doctor, who said he had a gastro-intestinal infection. Ms O’Brien was put on a saline drip. Mr O’Brien said he got blankets for his wife as she was “very cold”.

At 7am on May 16, she told him to go home and get some sleep while she was treated. She later rang him to pick her up so he collected her. Once home, she went straight to bed. However, her vomiting and diarrhoea continued.

The hospital called to say she had contracted salmonella and she was advised to stay hydrated. Medication to treat food poisoning was prescribed through her GP and Mr O’Brien collected this.

For the next few days while she took the drugs, her condition did not improve, and the hospital rang a number of times to check her condition.

On May 20, Ms O’Brien told her husband she was feeling a little better and had some soup – the first food she had eaten since the previous Monday.

She went back to bed and later got up and had a cup of tea when her sister called to the house.

“Sandra was in good form and her condition seemed to improve,” Mr O’Brien’s deposition continued.

The following morning, he got up at 6am: his wife appeared to be asleep in bed and he went to work. Later he rang her but got no answer. He rang again and tried the house phone but assumed she was too tired to answer and decided to let her sleep.

Mr O’Brien got home at 3.15pm and noticed the blinds were still pulled down, which he thought was strange.

When he entered the house he called his wife’s name but got no reply. He went up to find the bedroom in darkness. He could make out that she was still in the bed. Her eyes were closed and when he touched her face it was very cold.

“I knew straight away she was dead,” he said.

Her hands were under her head as if asleep. Mr O’Brien was shocked, and rang for an ambulance which arrived.

Family members, including their son Josh, then arrived and it was “most distressing for all of us”.

Mr O’Brien then answered the coroner’s questions.

He confirmed that the shopping trip on May 15 had been the first indication that his wife was unwell, and she complained of pain in her stomach.

“She was a tour de force when it comes to fitness,” he said of his wife.

Even before they met, Sandra was in running clubs, he said; she ran marathons, was a member of a gym and attended fitness classes.

“She was an extremely fit girl,” he said.

When his wife called him at work, she had said she needed to go to hospital straight away.

“I knew something was seriously wrong – she was so fit and healthy,” he said.

By May 20, she had seemed in better spirits, he said.

Some time during the night, he believed, she passed away beside him “unbeknownst to myself”, and he got up in the morning and went to work.

Josh O’Brien said his mother was in good form and it seemed like the food poisoning had passed when he spoke to her the day before she died. The next morning she “didn’t stir” in bed when he said, “See you later.”

Nicola Judge, Sandra’s niece, said 30 people attended her daughter’s communion party and 17 got sick, including her daughter.

When Mr O’Brien told her Sandra had died “it was a big shock because she was so fit and healthy” and had “at least 10 marathons under her belt”.

Helena Murray, a public health specialist at the HSE, said she chaired the outbreak control team.

Death from salmonella brandenburg was rare, with a 0.5pc mortality rate, she said.

The outbreak arose from parties that took place on May 13 and 14. Of these, 1,553 people attended 16 parties on May 13 and 105 on May 14.

She said the premises was served with a closure order under food safety regulations on May 19 as it was deemed to be a grave and imminent danger to public health. Later this was lifted, allowing the business to reopen. When it was inspected again, food safety management requirements were being adhered to.

In the outbreak, there was a total of 72 cases with 35 confirmed and 37 probable cases. Most had attended the off-site parties on May 13 and 14, and there were four kitchen staff and food handlers affected.

The number of cases was small relative to the number of parties, Ms Murray said. Cold cooked turkey was found to be the main and only contaminant.

The group’s report made recommendations on the use of social media for information and advice during outbreaks.

There should be guidance on the appointment of a family liaison for outbreaks.

The report also made recommendations on measures to be taken before the nature and extent of any food business is increased. There should be guidance to businesses on the risks associated with event catering, it found. The group stressed the importance of excluding ill food handlers from work for 48 hours.

Pathologist Avril Cullen said the cause of death was acute myocarditis secondary to salmonella infection.

This was described in literature as a “very rare event,” she said. There were also signs of previous episodes of myocarditis, she said.

Garda Kevin Barry said the directors of the food company Flanreil, Rory Reilly and Ciaran Flanagan, were convicted following an investigation and district court prosecution for breaches of food safety regulations.

Fines totalling €18,400 were issued against them and the company.

The jury delivered a narrative verdict, a factual summary, stating that Sandra was a “fit and healthy woman” who attended a communion party where she contracted salmonella through food provided by a catering company. Despite attending hospital and receiving treatment, she subsequently died, the verdict concluded.

The jury also endorsed recommendations made in the report of the outbreak control team.