Jack Ariola Erenberg (KARE 11)
STILLWATER, Minn. (KARE 11) - The Lily Lake beach and boat ramp remained closed Wednesday, after a nine-year-old Forest Lake boy died of a suspected rare amoeba infection just days after swimming there.
Jack Ariola Erenberg first started showing flu-like symptoms and severe headaches Friday night while his family was vacationing on the North Shore. After two trips to the emergency room in Grand Marais, the boy was airlifted to St. Mary's Hospital in Duluth.
"He was your typical boy, full of energy and full of life," Jack's grandfather Bob Watters told KARE Wednesday. "But he went down hill very, very fast after he became ill."
By the time Watters reached Duluth in the predawn hours Sunday the boy was in a coma, unable to speak or breath on his own. He was being treated for symptoms of meningitis and encephalitis, swelling of the brain.
"There was a hospital in Michigan treating a child with the same symptoms, and the doctors in Michigan suggested running a test and looking for this Amoeba," Watters explained.
"Once they did that the doctor came in, and the first thing he asked was, 'Has Jack been swimming somewhere in the South?' In the southern states? And we said, 'No. Just locally'."
The actual ailment is known as Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis, or PAM, which is caused by a water-borne amoeba known to researchers as Naegleria Fowleri.
The amoeba enter a swimmer's head through the nose, then migrate to the brain where they begin to divide. The brain counter attacks the invasion, but in vain, and then becomes inflamed and swells.
That type of amoeba are present in the sediment of virtually all bodies of fresh water, but thrive especially well in warmer, more stagnant waters.
"The doctor in Duluth said with the heat we've had this summer and the high water temperatures, it was like the perfect storm," Watters said.
"He said, you know, we don't check for this. He said, because we don't see it."
Such infections are extremely rare, but have been fatal in every documented case except for one. And virtually all of the known confirmed cases in the United States have occurred in the South.
Jack's father, Jim Ariola of Wyoming, Minn., told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that his 9-year-old son swam in Lily Lake in Stillwater early to mid last week. Health officials say that's where the child likely contracted the severe brain infection.
Watters remembers his grandson as bustling with creativity.
"He always wanted power tools for birthdays and Christmas," Watters recalled. "He was always building projects, always wanted scraps of wood so he could make things."
Watters says he takes comfort in the fact that Jack was an organ donor, and all of the boy's organs -- with the exceptions of his brain and his eyes -- were deemed safe to donate to others.
Minnesota's only officially confirmed case was in 2010. That child, 7-year-old Annie Bahneman of Stillwater, also swam in Lily Lake before contracting the condition. Her death, at the time, was the farthest north case in the U.S. by 500 miles.
An 11-year-old Hailee LaMeyer died in 2008 days after swimming in a small lake in Linwood Township. She suffered the same sudden onset, beginning with headaches and confusion before succumbing to brain swelling.
Pathologists at the Minnesota Dept. of Health say that her symptoms, in retrospect, were totally consistent with primary amoebic meningoencephalitis. But they are unable to confirm it without a brain autopsy, which was not ordered in Hailee's case.
Because of the unusually warm water temperatures this summer, the state health department issued an advisory to swimmers last month, urging them to avoid warm, stagnant waters.
Those who choose to enter such bodies of water are urged not to put their faces under water. As an added precaution, experts suggest children hold their nose or wear nose plugs in those types of water conditions.
A memorial fund has been set up for 9-year-old Jack Erenberg. Those interested in contributing can send donations to:
Jack Erenberg Fund
Central Bank of Forest Lake
1650 South Lake St.
Forest Lake MN 55025
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