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By Steve Steinberg
A simple cut on the arm, followed by a drug-resistant infection, led to the death in February of a popular 24th Street merchant.
Ken Tom, co-owner of Mail Boxes Etc. at 4104 24th Street, cut his elbow sometime in mid-February. According to his business partner John Lee, Tom didn't pay much attention to the scratch and wasn't even sure how he'd gotten it. Within a few days, however, the cut began to show symptoms of a serious infection. Tom checked himself into the hospital on Feb. 20, less than a week after he'd noticed the cut. By then it was too late. Tom succumbed to a deadly staph infection in the early morning of Feb. 21, a few hours after he'd entered the hospital. He was only 44 years old.
Tom's death was a shock to many people in the community who considered him their friend.
"People were walking down 24th Street crying after they heard of Tom's passing," said Carol Yenne, owner of Small Frys at 4066 24th Street. "He was always upbeat and friendly, never in a bad mood," she added. "Everybody in the neighborhood looked forward to seeing him."
Sara Witt, a 20th Street resident who has had a mailbox at Mail Boxes Etc. for the past eight years, described him as a "kind, helpful, and genuine" individual. She said she saw him almost every day of those eight years when she would go to the package store to pick up her mail. "He was part of my life, the spark of my day," Witt said. She had just loaned him some tourist books on Italy, as he and his girlfriend were planning a trip there. "Not a day goes by that I don't miss him," Witt added.
Tom, who had worked in banking before opening the Mail Boxes Etc. branch, was on particularly good terms with the staff of Noe Valley's Bank of America at 24th and Castro streets.
"He was like a staff member," said Nancy Mendoza, BofA's assistant manager. "We went to each other's homes, and he always attended our parties," she said, adding, "We lost a true sincere friend; we miss him dearly."
Tom, a resident of Twin Peaks, was a San Francisco native who lived in the city his entire life. He attended Sacred Heart High School and San Francisco State University, where he majored in finance. Lee, who had known him since elementary school, said the two decided to go into business 17 years ago and open their 24th Street franchise. Lee, who said he was still in shock over his partner's death, said the business would continue. "I might have to hire additional help now that Ken is gone," he said.
Memorial contributions in Ken Tom's memory can be made to the Youth Educational Fund of the Buddha's Universal Church of San Francisco, 720 Washington Street, San Francisco, CA 94108.
How to Avoid MRSA Infection
The staph infection that claimed the life of Mail Boxes Etc. owner Ken Tom is formally known as MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. It is a highly communicable disease that has proven itself resistant to most antibiotics. There is some evidence, as reported by the San Francisco Department of Public Health, that gay men are at higher risk of getting MRSA. But anyone can become infected--Ken Tom was not gay.
Factors that facilitate MRSA according to the Health Department are:
- Frequent skin-to-skin contact
- Compromised skin (i.e., cuts or abrasions)
- Contaminated items and surfaces
- Lack of cleanliness
Good hygiene can prevent the spread of staph infections. The San Francisco Department of Public Health recommends the following measures to combat MRSA:
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water. If soap is not available, use hand sanitizer instead.
- Keep wounds covered with clean, dry bandages.
- Do not share personal items such as towels, clothes, or anything else that makes contact with skin.
- Clean and disinfect items that are shared (such as athletic/workout equipment) before and after every use with disinfectant or detergent. A list of products approved by the Environmental Protection Agency that are effective against MRSA is available from the Department of Public Health's website. These products should be used only as directed.
- Use lotion to keep skin moist; damaged skin can provide an opening for infection.
For more information, visit the Communicable Disease Control and Prevention website of the San Francisco Department of Public Health: www.sfcdcp.org.