Track Hurricane Maria’s path with the FOX43 Hurricane Tracker

Woman hospitalized with botulism after eating nacho cheese from gas station

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A mother is fighting for her life after investigators say she contracted botulism after eating nacho cheese sauce at a Northern California gas station.

"My phone rings and I pick up the phone and it's her, and she can't articulate a word. And she's saying, basically she's saying 'Sister, I need you here now...'" Theresa Kelly told KTXL.

That's how Kelly first came to realize the seriousness of the illness that's changed her vibrant little sister, Lavinia, into a patient who's fighting to breathe or even open her eyes.

Early on, Theresa thought she was going to lose her.

"Yeah, it's really scary. And to think if her and my mother had eaten there, my mom's older. If my mom had eaten there, I don't know if we would have lost both of them," she said.

The "what ifs" torturing the Kelly family all surround Lavinia's choice to drizzle the Doritos she bought at a Walnut Grove gas station April 21 with nacho cheese sauce from the deli area.

She's now one of at least five people being treated at area hospitals after contracting botulism that Sacramento County health investigators have linked to the nacho cheese served by Valley Oak Food and Fuel.

Botulism, which is potentially fatal, can be caused by eating foods that have been contaminated with botulinum toxin, often homemade items that have been improperly canned, preserved, or fermented, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Symptoms can include double vision, slurred speech and muscle weakness. If left untreated, botulism can cause paralysis of the respiratory and other muscles.

"She's been clean, clean and sober almost a year when this happened. And she was embracing life, and then all of it's shot down 'bam.' So, I don't know," said her mother Dawn Kelly.

Lavinia Kelly's three kids and the rest of her family have watched her struggle to regain even the slightest function as the toxins she swallowed attacked her nerve endings.

She's now spending her third week in intensive care.

"I've never seen my sister, um, not have function of her body or be able to communicate. And I've never seen my sister on tubes or anything like that," said Theresa Kelly.

A month ago, Lavinia was eagerly helping her big sis start a new chapter in her life, sending her down the aisle.

Now loved ones wonder what kind of life this illness will leave Lavinia with.

"Thank God that we know she can recover. We just don't know how long or how much effort and, and we've got somebody here every single morning, every single day.  She's not left, not one minute. We want to make sure that she can communicate as much as possible," said Theresa.

"Somebody needs to be accountable. Somebody needs to pay attention to what the heck they're... what they're doing you know?  It's crazy," said Dawn Kelly.

The Kelly family has turned to a Seattle firm specializing in food safety issues to pursue legal action against the gas station.

Owners there did not return KTXL's calls for comment Tuesday.

A GoFundMe page has been set up to help defray the cost of Lavinia's medical treatment and support her family as they support her.