Ark. girl who battled "brain-eating" amoeba returns to water park

Facebook/Prayers For Kali Le Ann

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. Kali Hardig, the 12-year-old girl who recovered from a deadly "brain-eating" amoeba, visited the site where she was believed to have contracted the organism.

Kali returned to Willow Springs Water Park in Little Rock, Ark. on Monday -- her first time back since her illness -- to help owners announce a benefit fishing tournament for her later this month.

"There are no hard feelings," said Kali's mother, Traci Hardig, who was with her daughter for the announcement at the water park, where the benefit will be held. "They (the water park owners) are just a family, just like us. This is their livelihood. It's OK to come out here. It's OK to support them."

The girl was diagnosed with a form of parasitic meningitis called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) in July, and although it is often fatal she recovered after being treated at Arkansas Children's Hospital.

PAM is caused by the Naegleria fowleri amoeba, a commonly found microbe that lives in freshwater and soil. The amoeba is only dangerous if it enters through the nose and makes its way to the brain. There, it can cause an infection that makes the brain swell called meningitis. Death usually occurs around five days after the first signs of symptoms occur in 99 percent of cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

Naegleria fowleri is typically found in warm water up to 115 degrees F, which makes it more common during the summer months in the southern parts of the U.S. However, it is extremely rare to contract PAM. The infection has an incidence rate of about one in 33 million people.

Health officials say there were 128 reported infections like Kali's in the United States between 1962 and 2012. Before Kali, doctors could only point to one known survivor in the U.S. and another in Mexico.

Kali was treated with an experimental German drug called miltefosine, which is not approved for use in the United States. It has been prescribed occasionally to treat breast cancer and to treat a parasitic infection called leishmaniasis. In emergency situations, the CDC has given the drug out with permission from the Food and Drug Administration to treat amebic infections. This past August, the CDC expanded access to the drug following the success of Kali's recovery in order to make it easier for physicians to get it in an emergency situation.

After contracting the amoeba in July, Kali was finally sent home on Sept. 11.

After Kali's illness was diagnosed, water park owners David and Lou Ann Ratliff closed the sandy-bottomed lake to swimming and said they only would reopen it if they could afford a cement bottom.

State health officials have said another case of the parasitic meningitis was possibly connected to the water park, located just south of Little Rock, in 2010.

Before participating in Monday's news conference about the benefit, Kali quietly walked to the edge of the lake by herself.

"I'm proud of her," Traci Hardig said as her daughter stood and looked at the water.

The moment was less dramatic for Kali. "I was just looking for fish," she said.

David Ratliff said he's stocking the lake with catfish, between 1.5 and 12 pounds, for the Oct. 26 tournament. The entry fee is $20 in advance and $25 the day of the event, with the proceeds going to Kali and her family. The park also will have carnival games for a fall festival that coincides with the tournament.

Ratliff said swimming still will be off-limits. There will be hookups for RVs and storage for those vehicles, boats and campers.

Traci Hardig said Kali is continuing with physical, speech and occupational therapy while attending school. The girl appears unaffected by her ordeal, for which she was hospitalized into September.

She speaks clearly, moves smoothly and said that she performed a cartwheel over the weekend.

Kali said it felt good to return to Willow Springs.

"I like having fun here," she said. "I have a lot of fun here with my friends."

The 85-year-old park has long been a destination for school field trips and family recreation.

Kali's mother said she hasn't lost sight of how fortunate she is to still have her daughter.

"I had a lot of faith in this," Traci Hardig said. "I feel like I got a miracle."