Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021 | 2 a.m.
A small group of friends and family of Kathy Mustain Ryerson gathered in the living room of her Las Vegas home, surrounding about a half-dozen computer screens streaming for the many others scattered across the country who couldn’t be there.
But on what should have been Ryerson’s 70th birthday on May 1, the group was instead honoring the life of the retired nurse, who as a midwife delivered thousands of babies.
Ryerson’s life was cut short in November by liver failure blamed on Real Water, a Las Vegas-based alkaline water company, according to a lawsuit filed in Clark County District Court in May. The lawsuit is one of several the company is facing over alleged liver damage caused in dozens of victims over a six-year period. Ryerson’s sisters lawyers filed the lawsuit on behalf of multiple victims.
At the gathering, mourners exchanged tales about Ryerson’s past escapades, ranging from the countless road trips to a vacation in the 1980s to the Caribbean, where she and a friend received “red carpet” treatment from a minister of tourism.
As the remembrance ceremony was wrapping up, Simon Sutherland, Ryerson’s nephew, hit play on the iconic Christian hymn, “Will the Circle be Unbroken?”
It’s what Ryerson had long desired to be played at her funeral.
When Sutherland, then a child, took a road trip in Arizona with Ryerson, she asked him a favor seemingly out of the blue: “I want you to promise me — if you’re still around at my funeral — I want you to play (that song),” Simon’s mother, Pat Sutherland, recalled this month from the family attorney’s Las Vegas office. More specifically, Ryerson wanted a honky-tonk version of the song by Asleep at the Wheel.
Family members had a better idea — they performed the song themselves. “I said to that undertaker, undertaker please drive slow, for this lady you are carrying, Lord, I hate to see her go,” the group sang along that day, hardly a dry eye among the mourners.
Younger sibling Judy Ryerson, who was Kathy Ryerson’s longtime roommate in Las Vegas, said the past year had been tough. “Hating it,” she said.
Kathy Ryerson, her sisters’ attorneys say, is the lone person to die from complications related to consuming the product. According to the lawsuit, a batch of the product produced in October 2020 resulted in dozens more liver failures, causing one emergency brain surgery, miscarriages, and liver transplants, according to the complaint, which lists more than 48 patients needing intensive care unit hospitalizations
The complaint also alleges manufacturing company Milwaukee Instruments is at fault because its measuring device didn’t detect the poor water quality.
Attorneys listed for the parent company of Real Water and Milwaukee Instruments could not be reached for comment.
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Ryerson was always researching ways to improve her health. In the summer of 2019, her sister returned home from a work trip to find five-gallon jugs of Real Water, which according to the lawsuit promoted itself as “the healthiest drinking water available.” Her sister consumed 64 ounces of water every day, Judy Ryerson said.
On Sept. 23, 2020, Kathy Ryerson got a call from a doctor who screened blood work and told her, “Kathy, your liver enzymes are really high, you need to go to the hospital right away,” her sister said.
She was discharged after four days of testing, but upon her return home, “It was harder and harder for her to move and do things,” Judy Ryerson said.
She returned to the hospital Oct. 16. She never recovered and died Nov. 11.
Her family didn’t connect her death to Real Water until news stories about the product began surfacing this spring.
The Southern Nevada Health District in March announced that it was working with the federal Food and Drug Administration to investigate five cases of acute nonviral hepatitis — a disease of the liver — in Clark County children reported from Nov. 23 to Dec. 3, 2020, possibly caused by Real Water.
The following month the FDA connected the cases to the water and issued a complete recall, which the company didn’t contest, according to The Associated Press.
By May, the Health District said it had identifed 16 cases of acute nonviral hepatitis in Clark County. “To date, the consumption of ‘Real Water’ brand alkaline water was found to be the only common exposure associated with all the identified cases,” the Health District said in a news release
In June, a federal court permanently blocked the marketing of Real Water products, after the company agreed to stop distributing it and destroying any it had in its possession in plants in Las Vegas, Henderson and Mesa, Ariz., according to the AP.
Eric Pepperman, one of the attorneys representing Ryerson’s family, described the litigation as “complex,” involving various lawsuits, plaintiffs and defendants.
“It’s very clear that Real Water was the cause of this,” Pepperman said. “But the precise ... mechanisms of what happened, what went wrong, those details (are) going to be the subject” of further investigation.
Since there’s a lot of overlap among the lawsuits, law firms were collaborating during the discovery period, he said. An initial discovery hearing took place this past week.
“It’s scary that this was allowed to happen, and something like this could happen the way that it did,” he said. “Especially on the massive scale that we’ve seen.”
The grieving sisters would rather not talk about the lawsuit, although they say they hope it can bring them solace, accountability and regulation for other water businesses.
They want to remember their fun, adventurous sister: the woman who posed in a cherished photo they carry, which shows her flashing a wide smile, with a goofy, multicolor umbrella hat during a day out at the lake.
“Every day, we’re dealing with her loss, and it’s just unfathomable to us that she is gone, and the degree of her needless suffering,” Pat Sutherland said.
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Born to an upper middle-class family in Wisconsin, Kathy Ryerson was the oldest of four siblings, each two years apart.
Pat and Judy remember a happy home, where their parents insisted they pursued their passions through higher education. The surviving sisters remember their mother going back to school to obtain a master’s degree in the mid-1960s.
Then married with four children, including their brother Rick, their father took charge of cooking and putting them to bed on school nights, Judy Ryerson said. “We had a very fantastic perspective of the world from our parents.”
“She was a real smart cookie,” Pat Sutherland said about Kathy, who sang, did theater and was involved in German Club as a child. She graduated from high school sixth in her class and was in the National Honor Society.
Inspired by the feminist movement and anti-war protests that led to the Kent State massacre in 1970, Ryerson pursued an undergraduate degree from Grinnell College in Iowa.
She campaigned heavily for George McGovern’s presidential campaign a couple of years later but became disillusioned by politics after the candidate’s humiliating loss to Richard Nixon.
“The pendulum swung,” and Ryerson, much to the surprise of her loved ones, was accepted to Yale’s School of Medicine. The federal government underwrote her tuition under the condition that she serve two years in a medically underserved community.
A hospital in Chicago offered her a position, but she was sick of the Midwest and “went as far away as she could get,” Pat Sutherland said.
That led her to Arizona, where she worked on a Navajo reservation for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Judy Ryerson recently came across an information log of 243 babies she helped deliver. She also found a plethora of cards and photos from the families she helped, who kept in touch with her years after.
She continued to practice as a midwife across Arizona and was the health care provider for several years for a child who was born with congenital complications before she retired and moved to Las Vegas in 2014, where her sisters and their late mother had since relocated.
The sisters grew closer and loved to chat by the pool and have cookouts. To honor their mother on her birthday, they would frequent IHOP to enjoy her favorite meal: pancakes.
Mostly a homebody, Ryerson read the newspaper daily and sewed and beaded. She also was a prolific artist who loved making scrapbooks, including one she created for Pat to commemorate a Beatles concert they attended in 1964.
Every Sept. 4, they would chat on the phone to remember the day, Pat Sutherland said.
Judy Ryerson said they’d begun making travel plans for when she retired from UNLV.
“I was looking forward to doing all those types of things with her. ... She was way too young,” she said.