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‘I’m not angry,’ lye victim’s husband says, voicing ‘absolute confidence in our God’

SALT LAKE CITY (BP) — Jan Harding remains hospitalized indefinitely with ulcerated lye burns down the upper third of her esophagus but no longer faces a life-and-death struggle, her husband said during a press conference Thursday, Aug. 21.

Jim Harding had no words of bitterness despite a number of media questions to elicit such a response.

“I’m not angry,” Harding said at least twice. “I’m sad. We’re sad. We’re sad for Dickey’s, for our family, for everybody involved.”

Jan Harding was seriously injured at a Dickey’s barbecue restaurant when she took a sip of sweet tea on Aug. 10 — tea that had lye in it.

“God’s got us; He’s got us,” said Harding, retired executive director of the Utah/Idaho Southern Baptist Convention who now is a professor at the Utah extension center of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary and regularly serves as an interim pastor.

“We have absolute confidence in our God.”

Jim and Jan Harding moved to Utah 30 years ago to pastor in Layton. He served as the Utah/Idaho Southern Baptist Convention’s education director from 1990-95 and as executive director from 1995-2000.

The Hardings were at a Salt lake City-area Dickey’s waiting for longtime friends and regular Sunday dining companions Dan and Sherrie Walker when the incident occurred. Dan Walker is director of missions for the Salt Lake Baptist Association.

“God has honored my wife,” Harding said during the press conference in the office of attorney Paxton Guymon in Salt Lake City. “My mental picture is He’s weeping, but He’s going to allow this to happen to use this for His honor and glory.

“He chooses the strongest, the most faithful, the most committed people to go through something like this because He knows they’re strong enough to handle it,” Harding continued. “God knows this is coming. These are His chosen best.”

Harding called the press conference to say thank you for the many cards and prayers they’ve received; to give God the glory in the continual healing of his wife; and to send word to restaurant employees to be extremely careful in their work so that no one else is inadvertently injured when going out for a meal.

When she took a sip of tea, the ordinarily demure Jan Harding bent over and spat out the liquid as she choked, gagged and coughed.

“I think I just drank acid,” she managed to gasp to her husband.

Jim Harding quickly told the manager on duty what had happened, got contact information, then rushed his wife to a nearby hospital.

“What I expected was that they would give her some magical mouthwash,” Harding recounted. “My mind hadn’t caught up with it, even when they Life-Flighted her to the burn unit in Salt Lake City.

“When we arrived, there were eight gowned and masked people in the room,” Harding continued. “I had no idea it was so serious; I was still looking for the magical mouthwash. As they shut the door on me, I asked a nurse, ‘Is this life-threatening?’ and she just looked at me.”

The Hardings had taken the tea with them to the hospital. It was tested and found to contain a heavy concentration of an alkaline substance as caustic to humans as battery acid would be.

“I called Dickey’s and asked them what it was,” Harding said. “They told me some cleaning product had gotten mixed in with the sugar, so they threw it away.”

That cleaning product sodium hydroxide — known commonly as lye — was used for degreasing deep fat fryers. During the cleaning process, the fat is emptied, the fryer filled with water and heated to boiling. When lye is added to the heated water, it dissolves burned-on residue, according to several Internet sources. The benefit: Lye continues to burn through caked-on material until it is dissolved. Acids, on the other hand, stabilize after burning through the top layer, so they don’t clean deeply enough.

Even though Jan Harding said she didn’t swallow the tea, droplets of the lye probably mixed with her saliva, and that’s what caused the burning down the upper third of her esophagus, Harding surmised.

The first week was grim for the Harding family — the couple’s three children and six grandchildren all live in Utah Valley — as they sat vigil. Prayer went out across the nation as Jan Harding’s story gained traction because it was something that could happen to anyone who eats out.

Investigators learned an employee in early July filled a sugar container with what she thought was sugar. The next day, July 5, an assistant manager used her finger to taste the sugar, which didn’t look quite right, and immediately the lye burned a hole in her tongue.

The container or its contents was moved into the manager’s office but not destroyed, and nearly five weeks later, on Aug. 10, several cups of sugar-lye mix were dumped into a tea dispenser on the drinks sidebar. Jan Harding was the first that day to choose sweet tea as her beverage.

The fact that Jan Harding was the second person to have been injured by the caustic substance is “a game-changer,” said Harding’s attorney, Paxton Guymon, during the press conference. But he, like Harding, shied away from any talk of lawsuits.

Harding explained that he had hired Guymon to deal with all the media inquiries and that he’d only have to say once what he wanted to say in the press conference.

He opened by expressing his thanks for all the prayers and expressions of goodwill that have come to the family, including a 9-year-old child in California who made an elaborately-decorated “Get Well Soon” card and envelope.

“If you want your confidence restored in humanity, you walk through waters like this and see how people respond,” Harding said. “I want to thank people properly for their love and support.

“Trust the Lord,” Harding continued. “He’s given us the strength we need. … My wife has improved so very much but she’s got a long ways to go.”

Jan Harding was physically restrained at the outset of her treatment Aug. 10 so she couldn’t pull out the tubes of eight bags of medicine that were positioned around the head of her bed. Her throat had swollen but was not completely shut. Doctors performed an endoscopy on Thursday, Aug. 14, and reported more extensive damage than they had hoped.

Her throat had opened up enough by the next day that she was able to come off the ventilator that had been breathing for her. By Saturday she had improved enough to barely whisper “I love you” to her husband. By Sunday, she was able to speak.

Jan Harding had a second endoscopy Tuesday, Aug. 19, that showed significant evidence of healing. Wednesday she started receiving clear liquids and by Friday, Aug. 22, doctors hope she will be able to eat without the aid of a feeding tube.

“I’m just grateful for each day,” Jim Harding said. “I’m grateful she’s getting better. I’m grateful she has a voice. I’m grateful the ‘life-and-death’ thing has been taken off the table. I’m just grateful for where we are.

“I’m concerned about getting my wife well,” Harding continued. “I just want my wife to be okay.”
Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).