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'It can't be my wife, because it's just food poisoning'

Husband of woman who died after eating at Dave's Sushi recalls her life and final days

Jon Ventura hastily double-checked the meaning of "code blue" on his smartphone while seated outside the Bozeman Health emergency room. It was the afternoon of April 17, and his wife, Donna, had been rushed to the hospital suffering what they suspected was a routine case of food poisoning after lunch at Dave's Sushi in downtown Bozeman.

The 63-year-old nuclear researcher from Belgrade was convinced the call over the loudspeaker had to be for someone else.

"It can't be my wife, because it's just food poisoning. It can't be," he remembered thinking.

But the code blue wasn't for somebody else. Doctors soon informed Jon that his wife of nearly 34 years had just gone into cardiac arrest and had been resuscitated by emergency staff.

"And that's when I knew it wasn't just regular food poisoning," Ventura recalled during a recent interview with Montana Free Press. "This was grave and serious, and she spent the next 12 days fighting."

Donna, 64, lost that fight on the morning of April 29, passing away after suffering from what doctors told Ventura was the failure of her liver and kidneys. Ventura said his wife was in terrible pain for nearly two weeks, the result of eating a roll that contained uncooked morel mushrooms at Dave's.

Ventura fought back tears as he described his wife's final days.

"Her throat hurt. Her body hurt," he said. "You touched her skin and it was very tight. Think of a balloon that was at max pressure before it bursts. Her skin was leaking fluid because it was so tight."

Ventura shared that doctors received special approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to administer a drug to combat mushroom toxicity, but the efforts weren't enough to save Donna.

While hospitalized, Donna began to struggle when speaking and swallowing and eventually couldn't breathe on her own and needed a ventilator. She used a red marker to write her last message to her husband - "I love you" - on a sheet of computer paper, her handwriting shaken by the effort.

That was Friday, April 28. Donna died the next morning before Jon could get to the hospital and say goodbye.

And now, health officials say they can better link Donna to other food-poisoning victims searching for answers to how the iconic sushi restaurant served up the questionable fungi.

On Wednesday, the state and Gallatin County health departments released comprehensive findings that indicate 50 people who dined at Dave's Sushi on two days, April 8 and April 17, were sickened after eating morel mushrooms. One other person, William Lewis, 74, of Toston, died on April 18, a day after eating at Dave's. Three other people required hospitalization.

What health officials can't put their finger on is a specific toxin, bacteria or other contaminant in the mushrooms that was responsible for the outbreak of illness.

Wednesday's release includes the following: "Study results indicated that consuming morel mushrooms at the restaurant was strongly associated with developing [gastrointestinal] illness. Additionally, individuals who reported consuming a greater quantity of sushi containing morels were more likely to develop illness compared to those who reported consuming fewer pieces."

The health officials did clarify that the way Dave's Sushi prepared the morel mushrooms could have contributed to the outbreak. The findings indicate that on April 17 - when the Venturas visited the restaurant - the mushrooms weren't cooked, only marinated in a sauce that hadn't been boiled. A further investigation by the FDA into six other restaurants that received morels from the same supplier during the same time showed that all reported cooking or sauteing the mushrooms and that no consumers reported being sickened.

Meanwhile, according to a report from the Gallatin City-County Health Department, a routine restaurant inspection earlier this week found more health code violations at the embattled restaurant accused of serving the toxic morels.

Dave's Sushi was cited twice on Tuesday when an inspector noted unsafe temperatures in a sample of raw fish and problems with the restaurant's dishwashing machine, the report said. Both issues were corrected on-site Tuesday.

However, health code violations have been an ongoing issue since the state began scrutinizing the restaurant after the food-poisoning deaths. Records show that inspectors have found 22 violations during the seven inspections they've made at Dave's Sushi since management voluntarily closed in April. The restaurant reopened on May 25.

In recent letters and video messages posted online, representatives from the restaurant have tried to answer the many questions surrounding the outbreak, while also asking diners to support Dave's.

The owner of Dave's Sushi, Aaron Parker, told MTFP Wednesday that his restaurant was blindsided by the foodborne illness outbreak and that he's personally dedicated hours of research into similar illnesses caused by morel mushrooms, describing them as shocking. He's been calling other restaurants and spreading the word about the potential dangers of morel mushrooms ever since.

"That's what is so scary about this, that some of the most trained, talented chefs in the country don't know about these risks," Parker said.

"Why I'm so passionate, and why we've cooperated with every single agency is that I don't want this to happen again to any other family," Parker said.

Parker said that his restaurant staff have been intensely focused on food safety compliance in the wake of the foodborne illness investigation and that the extra scrutiny from health officials has been a good thing.

"We've always been incredibly safe," Parker said. "Since this has happened, we've only tightened our screws further."

For Jon Ventura, the continued food safety violations are upsetting. More than that, he said, the restaurant's appeal to patrons, asking them to help keep Dave's Sushi in business, is insulting after his wife's death. His family has filed a lawsuit against the restaurant.

"Frankly, what appalls me is the restaurant puts out statements about how we're in their thoughts and prayers. Really? That level of hypocrisy is hurtful, painful," he said.

Ventura does want the community to know how much his family appreciates its support.

A token of that support is the chain Jon Ventura now wears around his neck that holds Donna's gold wedding band fused to his own. He said the staff of Alara Jewelry in downtown Bozeman teamed up with a local wine merchant, Vino Per Tutti, to help pay for the piece.

"I was absolutely blown away," he said.

For Ventura, the memory of his wife will live on through her acts of service to the community. He said baking and cooking for local charities was Donna's way of giving back for what he called a fortunate life.

Retirement in 2019 brought the couple to the Gallatin Valley, where they built a home, complete with a custom kitchen to indulge Donna's culinary skills.

"When Donna got here, she immediately volunteered for the Gallatin Valley Food Bank and worked there ... until she passed," Ventura said.

Donna and Jon also volunteered at the Bozeman Public Library and served lunches to needy residents outside in the summertime.

The couple was especially delighted to help cook for the local nonprofit veterans' organization Warriors and Quiet Waters. Together, they crafted custom menus and volunteered in the organization's kitchen during events to help wounded vets.

"We're strong believers in giving back to the community that's given us so much," Ventura said. "But at the same time, the other thing that I constantly worry about is when you go out to lunch, or go out to dinner, or even breakfast for that matter, you shouldn't have to worry about dying."

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