January 8, 1998 in City

Husband’s Death Prompts Woman’s Mad-Cow Crusade

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Has mad-cow disease found a home on the ranges of Spokane?

Can we carnivores no longer wolf down a Whopper or binge on Big Macs without worry of turning our brains into Swiss cheese?

That’s the message vegetarian scaremongers are putting forth to drum up interest in their upcoming meeting.

Don’t worry meat lovers. There’s no rational reason to believe the area’s burgers and chops are packed with bum steer.

The flier sent to the newspaper by the group Earthsave tells a different story.

“Mad Cow Disease? In Spokane?!?!?!” blare headlines advertising a Jan. 18 free potluck and speech at the Unitarian-Universalist Church. “Come hear a local family’s story and learn more about how to ensure the safety of your food choices.”

The event will feature Spokane’s Peggy Johnston, whose husband, Ken, died last August of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, popularized in the press as mad-cow disease.

But the two diseases, though they share a similar protein, are “not the same thing,” according to Dr. Scott Carlson, a Spokane neurologist.

Believed to come from eating infected beef, mad cow is considered a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob. It is even rarer than CJD, which strikes only one out of every million people. Creutzfeldt-Jakob is most commonly passed through tainted surgical instruments or by taking certain growth hormones.

Both diseases are incurable. Brains are literally eaten away in a nightmarish progression that leads to insanity and death within months.

Because of a possible meat connection, however, Peggy has embraced the most extreme form of vegetarianism.

“I can’t even fathom eating meat if there is any chance that this is what caused my husband’s illness,” she says, later adding: “At this point in my life, meat nauseates me and I feel the same way about milk, eggs and cheese.”

After what she’s been through, who can blame this woman for being scared?

A once vibrant professional golfer, Ken co-owned Sun Dance Golf Course north of Spokane with Peggy. She took him to the doctor last June 20 after he complained of a weakness in his left arm. He died Aug. 26.

The last three weeks were the worst. Ken quit swallowing and eating. He cried out about imagined snakes. He had to be tied to a chair. “It was a terrible experience,” Peggy says.

But experts say it is bad science to try to link his illness to a specific cause, such as eating meat.

“I eat sushi. I want my beef mooing,” says Spokane neurosurgeon Dr. John Damakas, who calculates the odds of contracting the disease through eating beef as “slim to none.”

Consuming infected meat may have killed at least 20 people in Britain. According to recent Associated Press reports, however, “no case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy - the neurological disorder fatal in cattle - has ever been reported in the United States.”

“You can write anything, but it doesn’t make it true,” counters Rosalia’s Rebecca McMahon, the point person for the Earthsave potluck.

McMahon believes there may be many more cases of mad-cow disease that aren’t correctly diagnosed. “Yes I do, I really do,” she says, when asked if she believes anyone who eats a fast-food burger is taking a potentially lifethreatening risk.

That’s the same kind of extremist bull-oney that got Oprah Winfrey sued when she disparaged hamburgers on her show.

McMahon may have a point about diagnosis, though.

After a battery of tests failed to show anything, Peggy says her husband was written off as a psychiatric case. Only a UCLA doctor recognized Ken’s symptoms after his desperate family listed them on the Internet in a desperate plea for help.

“Ken was out of his mind,” says Peggy, “but it wasn’t a mental problem. It was a brain disease.”

, DataTimes

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