Some Austin pork plant workers struggle with disease and its aftermath

Kelly Wadding
Quality Pork Processing president Kelly Wadding says his company has been open with the public and its workers about the neurological disease that some workers at the plant developed. He says the vast majority of people who have symptoms of the disease have received worker's compensation.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Felicitas can't do much now besides watch TV. She'd rather be working, but the disease doctors say she developed at Quality Pork Processing--or QPP-- makes everything a struggle. Even walking from the living room where her daughter's toys are piled in the corner and to the kitchen where her mother is cooking dinner.

"Now, nothing is the same," she says in Spanish. MPR news translated her comments into English.

Felicitas is in the country illegally, so we've agreed to only use her first name.

The disease originated at the "head table", where workers would stick hoses with compressed air into pigs' skulls to blast out the brains. Felicitas worked on the head table for only a week, but she walked through the area half a dozen times a day for three years.

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The pressurized air created an aerosol mist of pig brains. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic and the Health Department found that breathing in the brain matter prompted an auto-immune response in workers' bodies. That means their bodies began to attack the nerves in the arms and legs, and sometimes even the central nervous system. For Felicitas, at first her hands and feet started to go numb.

"I felt horrible. I couldn't walk. If I sat down I had to help myself up with my hands. In order to climb stairs I had to pull myself with both hands," she says.

Felicitas's claim for worker's comp was denied by QPP's insurance company. As a result she can't afford to buy the steroids she needs to manage the disease. Shortly after she renewed her request for worker's compensation, QPP fired her.

She was told the company discovered she was working illegally. QPP confirms that. Courts have ruled that workers can receive workers' compensation regardless of their immigration status.

"Who determines whether or not an individual is a case and who's not from a worker's compensation perspective is completely out of my hands," says Mayo Clinic neurologist Dan Lachance, one of two doctors treating all of the QPP workers.

Lachance says he does not work with QPP's insurance company.

"I have no idea what criteria the people deciding are using even though we are the ones who are defining the disease," he says.

Lachance, along with scientists from the Center for Disease Control and the Minnesota Department of Health recently submitted scientific articles on the disease to a major medical journal. QPP has hired a neurologist from Johns Hopkins University to decide whether a patient qualifies for worker's comp. But Lachance says that neurologist has not been privy to any of the research on the disease or to the patients.

MPR news has spoken with two diagnosed workers who have been unable to get worker's compensation. A worker's compensation lawyer tells MPR, he represents two other workers who have also been denied coverage.

Quality Pork Processing has been open about this disease and fully responsible for its workers, according to company president Kelly Wadding.

"We said anybody has any symptoms or problems even family members, come up tell us about it. We drove people to the doctor's," he says.

Each worker's comp cases is thoroughly reviewed, Wadding says. But the process has taken longer than usual because this is a new disease.

"I think 95 percent of the people who have been diagnosed are covered under worker's comp," he says.

Wadding can't discuss specific cases, and won't go into detail on the criteria for worker's comp. But he will say that Felicitas's case is being re-examined.

That's news to her, and in the meantime she's making do without her medicine.

"There's no point to my life anymore. I feel like a burden to my family. It's not fair to them and it's not fair to me," she says. "It's really hard. The truth is it's really hard to live with this disease. But what can I do?"