Family finds parallels between Stillwater family's tragedy and their ownby Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — A Forest Lake family believes the same amoeba that caused the death of a Stillwater girl last month likely sickened and killed their young daughter two years ago.
The Minnesota Department of Health said it can't confirm that the case was caused by the amoeba, but the agency isn't disputing the family's conclusion.
In August 2008, Hailee LaMeyer, then 11, went swimming with a friend in a small lake, about a block from her home. Two days later, she began showing the first signs of meningoencephalitis - a dangerous swelling of the brain and nervous system membranes. Within days, Hailee was dead and her grieving family wanted to know why.
Heidi LaMeyer, Hailee's mom, said doctors had collected a lot of samples of blood and spinal fluid and believed that tests would give them an answer.
"But that never came," LaMeyer said.
In their search for answers, the LaMeyer family turned to the Internet, where they learned about the Naegleria amoeba -- a deadly micro-organism. On rare occasions, it had infected and killed people, primarily in southern states, who had been swimming in warm, stagnant water.
Heidi LaMeyer said she asked the Minnesota Department of Health to test her daughter's samples for signs of the amoeba. The agency sent the sample to a federal lab and it came back negative.
But LaMeyer still doubted the results. She said by that point, several months had passed since Hailee's death, making it more likely that her samples had deteriorated from being frozen and then thawed.
With nothing more to go on, LaMeyer tried to put it out of her mind. Then last month, she heard about a 7-year-old Stillwater girl who died from an infection caused by the Naegleria amoeba. "We knew immediately, if we now had a confirmed case in Minnesota, this is what it was," she said. "And that we need to follow that gut instinct and do what we could to make the public aware. And that's what we're trying to do now."
It turns out the Minnesota Department of Health was thinking about Hailee's case too. When LaMeyer called the agency the day after the Stillwater case was confirmed, she was transferred to a doctor who sounded like he was expecting her call. He asked if she was calling about Hailee.
"And I just sat back in my chair and said, 'Yes, I am.' And he said, '...The minute we heard the news about this case in Stillwater, we immediately pulled Hailee's file'" LaMeyer said.
Dr. Aaron DeVries was the doctor who spoke with LaMeyer that day. She gave him permission to talk about her daughter's case with Minnesota Public Radio. DeVries heads up the Department of Health's Unexplained Critical Illness and Death Surveillance Project. He said Hailee had all of the classic symptoms associated with amoebic encephalitis. He believes it is possible that she was infected by the Naegleria amoeba -- even though the test results don't confirm the theory.
"This is one of the highest things on our list of possible causes," he said. "Unfortunately, we'll never know for sure."
A substantial difference between Hailee's case and the Stillwater case, is that Hailee did not have an autopsy. If she had, the Department of Health would have been able to test her brain tissue for signs of the amoeba.
If Hailee's case had been confirmed, it wouldn't necessarily mean that the Naegleria amoeba poses an even greater risk to Minnesota swimmers. DeVries said there have only been about 100 cases reported in the U.S. in the past 40 years.
But he said Minnesota doctors should start asking their patients about their swimming exposure any time they see cases of meningoencephalitis.
"[It] should be considered amongst the many other possible causes of that type of an illness," DeVries said.
LaMeyer said parents should also be aware that there are times when it might not be a good idea to let their kids swim in a warm lake. She said if Hailee were alive today she would still let her go swimming.
"We would just be careful," LaMeyer said. "Just to be aware in the same way that you would when you were instructing your child how to cross the street."
LaMeyer said she would like the state to do more testing of lakes and put out warnings about the dangers posed by the amoeba.
- All Things Considered, 09/17/2010, 5:24 p.m.