Kelsey McClain spent her 24th birthday last summer on the Colorado River. The water was one of her favorite places to be. Water skiing. Wakeboarding. Fishing. She loved it all.
But something dangerous in the river found the California woman: A rare microscopic assassin that invaded her brain. She first felt it in the pounding headache she complained about when she returned home to El Cajon.
When she woke up one morning unable to speak or move her head, doctors suspected bacterial meningitis. They treated her with antibiotics, but Kelsey just got sicker.
Eight days after her happy birthday outing, she was brain-dead.
“My life is ruined, destroyed,” her mother, Jennifer McClain, recently told KGTV in San Diego. “I have two other daughters, but it doesn't matter.”
A lab at the University of California, San Diego, found Kelsey’s killer in a sample of her spinal fluid: Naegleria fowleri, a brain-eating amoeba that causes a rare brain infection called primary amebic meningoencephalitis, or PAM.
With summertime at hand, when people are more likely to be in the water, McClain is spreading the word about how to prevent the killer parasite. Right now, there is no known treatment for it.
“Losing somebody this close to you, a child, the pain is incredible,” McClain told KGTV.
Last month a judge in Minnesota dismissed a lawsuit filed against the city of Stillwater after a 9-year-old boy died in 2012 from an amoeba traced to Lily Lake.
The boy’s father sued the city, saying warnings should have been posted because a 7-year-old girl had been infected at the lake in 2010. A county judge ruled that city officials could not have known there were amoebas in the water. The boy’s family plans to appeal the ruling.
There have been 133 recorded cases of PAM nationwide since the early 1960s, most occurring in southern states.
In July 2014, a 9-year-old Spring Hill, Kan., girl died from the brain-eating amoeba.
Hally “Bug” Nicole Yust had been in four different bodies of water in the two weeks before she died, making it impossible for state health officials to find the source of the amoeba. Her illness was only the second known case in Kansas.
Last summer the amoeba killed 14-year-old Michael John Riley Jr., a star athlete in Houston who was infected while swimming with his cross-country team at Sam Houston State Park. He was dead within days.
Two summers ago 12-year-old Kali Hardig of Arkansas made national headlines when she became one of only three people known to survive the infection.
Doctors saved her with a cocktail of medications, including an experimental drug initially created to treat breast cancer. They also cooled down her body, a method sometimes used to treat traumatic brain injuries.
Once a person is infected, treatment is difficult because the parasite aggressively attacks the central nervous system, Susan Rehm, the medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, told The Weather Channel.
The amoeba is commonly found in warm freshwater — lakes, rivers, hot springs — and soil, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It usually infects people through contaminated water that enters the body through the nose, typically while swimming or diving, and travels to the brain where it causes inflammation.
You cannot get infected by drinking water contaminated by the amoeba, says the CDC.
Symptoms — headache, fever, nausea, vomiting, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance and body control and seizures — usually appear within days of infection.
The only way to completely avoid contamination? Avoid all water-related activities in warm freshwater, says the CDC.
Short of that, if you swim in warm freshwater use swimmers’ nose clips or hold your nose shut under water. Avoid stirring up sediment in shallow freshwater areas, the CDC recommends. Keep your head above the water in hot springs.
And if signs say “no swimming” don’t swim there.
Shirley Bush, a partner at the resort that Kelsey McClain visited for her birthday, said Kelsey’s case was the first they had experienced in the waters there.
Since Kelsey’s death, the resort has posted warning signs and plans to sell nose clips in the gift shop.