Meet a survivor of a rare, deadly “brain-eating” amoeba

    Kali Hardig stands at the edge of the lake at Willow Springs park where she was sickened by a water-borne amoeba. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

    Kali Hardig stands at the edge of the lake at Willow Springs park where she was sickened by a water-borne amoeba. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

    Today, Kali Hardig is a normal 15-year-old girl who loves to swim. But in 2013, she found herself in the spotlight as she fought for her life. She’s one of the few survivors of a “brain-eating amoeba.”

    It was a normal summer for 12-year-old Kali Hardig. She spent most of her time in the water, swimming at Willow Springs Water Park near her house in Arkansas. 

    On a day that Kali remembers vividly, she came home from swimming, and told her mom, Traci, she had a very bad headache. Her mom thought it was from too much time in the sun or dehydration. 

    She couldn’t have imagined the real cause — that her daughter Kali had an amoeba in her head that was beginning to infect and destroy her brain tissue. 

    Naegleria Fowleri, or Primary Amebic Meningitis 

    This particular amoeba is commonly found in warm, fresh bodies of water like rivers, lakes, or springs. Amebic Meningitis can’t be contracted by drinking contaminated water — infection only takes place when the amoeba is forced up the nose. That’s why the most common victims are people who got water up their nose while swimming, like Kali Hardig. The amoeba then latches on and travels up the olfactory nerve to the brain. 

    Once inside the brain, the infection destroys brain tissue and the brain swells, causing death. 

    The early symptoms don’t usually cause a lot of alarm — headaches, fever, nausea or vomiting. Once the symptoms escalate to seizures, hallucinations, and loss of balance, it is usually too late to save the victim. 

    This summer alone, four people have been infected with Naegleria Fowleri. One teenage girl died in Ohio in June after whitewater rafting in North Carolina. A teenage boy died in Texas in July.  Another girl died this month in South Carolina. A man in South Florida is in the hospital after doctors confirmed he contracted the amoeba while swimming. 

    Although Naegleria Fowleri infections are extremely rare, with only 138 cases between 1962 and 2015, it is also extraordinarily deadly. The chances of dying from the amoeba are above 97 percent. 

    According to the CDC, there are only three survivors in the United States, and five survivors worldwide. Kali Hardig is one of those survivors. 

    survivorFriends and family of Kali wear shirts that say, “Kali’s Krew” with the number 3, because at the time they thought she was the third survivor. (Courtesy of the Hardig family) 

    A race against time to defy the odds

    Once doctors at Arkansas Children’s Hospital identified Naegleria Fowleri as the cause of Kali’s sickness, they broke the news to her parents, Joseph and Traci. 

    “The head doctor over at the ER, he took myself and Traci into a conference room and laid it out to us,” says Joseph Hardig. “He told us what she had, and he said ‘she won’t make it through the weekend.’” 

    His voice cracks as he remembers the moment when they got the devastating news. This was insult upon injury for the Hardigs — Traci was fighting her sixth re-occurrence of breast cancer, and Joseph had just returned from serving in Kuwait to help take care of her. Now, they faced losing their daughter. 

    “It’s hard to wrap your head around,” Joseph says. “They gave her a one percent chance of survival.”

    Despite the chances, the doctors took Kali into surgery to put a port into her head so they could administer medicine straight into her brain. They called the CDC, who had an experimental drug on hand from Germany called miltefosine that was not created to treat parasitic meningitis, but had been used on a previous survivor. The CDC shipped it immediately, but the shipment was lost. 

    “You want everything to go right, of course. But people are humans. You can’t scream at everybody,” Joseph says. 

    The lost drug was found, and finally shipped to Little Rock, Arkansas. It was added into Kali’s drug regimen. Then they lowered her body temperature to 93 degrees and put her in a medically induced coma. 

    Then, they waited.

    Out of the woods and back into the water

    “Once I woke up out of a coma…I was all over the news,” Kali says, laughing. She had no idea what had happened to her, but the “brain-eating amoeba” had already made headlines. 

    Her brain was slightly scarred from the infection, but doctors said because of her age, the damage wasn’t irreparable. 

    “The doctor, he said, ‘She does have some scarring on her brain, but picture your brain like a fuse box. Your core of your brain is your fuse box, and the fuse box runs out to the rest of your brain like electrical outlets. Well, some of her electrical outlets have some damage on them, but her fuse box is good. The brain will reroute and go around these,’” Joseph says. “It was a huge relief.” 

    Kali had to relearn how to walk, talk, read and write. She also relearned how to swim in the rehabilitation pool at the hospital. 

    “Once they let me swim in their pool at Children’s and I knew I wouldn’t get sick,” Kali says, “I was ecstatic, because I knew I could still swim. And I love to swim.”

    After 55 days, Kali walked away from the hospital as one of the world’s few survivors of the rare and deadly “brain-eating” amoeba. 

    homeBalloons and signs outside of the Hardig’s house for the day that Kali came home from the hospital. (Courtesy of the Hardig family) 

    This post was updated on August 12, 2016 to reflect additional data from the CDC. 

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal