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2 Investigators: Woman Gets Tetanus After Getting Cut On Bench At Brookfield Zoo

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(CBS) — A young mother of two nearly died after a day at Brookfield Zoo. She wants to warn others about what she believes is a danger there and she spoke with CBS 2’s Dave Savini in this original report.

A trip to the zoo this summer was supposed to be happy memory for Ashley Lionberg and her family.

“I don’t think my life will ever be the same,” said Lionberg.

Her life would change forever after her finger got cut on a piece of a bench while feeding her children.

“I bent down,” said Lionberg. “As I was coming back up, I sliced my finger.”

She contracted a deadly disease and ended up on a ventilator and ultimately paralyzed and in need of a feeding tube.

“It’s terrifying,” said Lionberg. “Because when the muscle spasms come on, where I can’t breathe, it’s like I’m being suffocated.”

Lionberg is suffering from tetanus and she says the only cut she had was the one from the zoo.

“They examined my body to make sure there was no other cuts or scars or healed anything, and it was just the one on my finger,” said Lionberg. “I’m 100 percent sure I got tetanus from the zoo.”

It happened in August, she says there was a splinter deep inside her finger from a bench with aging wood and rusty nuts and bolts. The next week, the symptoms started.

“My jaw started to hurt then, by Thursday, I was completely lock jawed.”

Now she is on a mission to get Brookfield Zoo to fix the benches. Lionberg says her first attempts to report this to the zoo went poorly.

“My first call ended up with laughter and being hung up on and that really, really upset me,” said Lionberg.

After her repeated contacts with zoo staff about her injury, CBS 2 found the same bench in disrepair. There also were other benches with rusty bolts and screws and rotting wood. One bench needed bolts but instead a plastic safety tie was used. Another bench, this one just a few feet from where Lionberg was sitting, was loaded with splinters and pieces of wood were falling off.

Other maintenance troubles include holes in pathways and picnic tables with broken wood. One table even had staples sticking out. Railings where zoo patrons rest their arms and hands were covered with splinters, sharp wires and fractures.

Lionberg’s attorney, Shawn Collins, examined the bench which she says caused her injury.

“It’s filthy, it’s splintering,” said Collins. “It is in a profound state of disrepair. Even after they’re [Brookfield Zoo] told about what happened, they didn’t react and they didn’t fix it right away.”

Lionberg now struggles to care for herself and her two children. She was recently married and had to use her wheelchair to go down the aisle.

“It’s ruined,” said Lionberg. “It’s ruined my life right now.”

Lionberg says zoo officials ignored her until she wrote about her experience on the Zoo’s Facebook page. A written statement from the Chicago Zoological Society says they can not comment on Lionberg’s case. However, they say safety is their highest priority and the Zoo has an ongoing maintenance program on the outdoor physical structures.

Lionberg says she was vaccinated five years ago for tetanus. Her long-term condition is unclear.

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