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Florida boy, 13, dies after contracting brain-eating amoeba during family vacation

The boy's mom said that he might have had a chance if he was diagnosed correctly at the first hospital they visited.
Family members are remembering Tanner Lake Wall, 13, who died last month after contracting a brain-eating amoeba.
Family members are remembering Tanner Lake Wall, 13, who died last month after contracting a brain-eating amoeba.Alicia Whitehill
/ Source: TODAY

Tanner Lake Wall, 13, died on August 2 after contracting a brain-eating amoeba while vacationing with his family. Now, Tanner's mom is speaking out in hopes of warning other parents about this rare but deadly amoeba that took her son's life.

Alicia Whitehill, 39, of Palatka, Florida, told TODAY that she and her family, including Tanner's stepdad and his twin sisters were vacationing at a campground from July 23-26 and that Tanner went swimming in a lake that Friday and Saturday.

Tanner's mom said "he was loved by everyone and he loved everyone he met."
Tanner's mom said "he was loved by everyone and he loved everyone he met."Alicia Whitehill

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The parasite likely went up the boy's nose while he was swimming.

By Tuesday, the boy was complaining of a headache that became more painful as the week went on. Two days later, Tanner started developing other symptoms, including nausea and fever.

"On Thursday, we took Tanner to Putnam Community Medical Center in Palatka, Florida," Whitehill said. "The ER doctor diagnosed strep throat and advised that Tanner would be discharged."

Whitehill said she disagreed with the decision to discharge Tanner as his condition appeared to be worsening and requested that he be transferred to another hospital.

"This angered the ER doctor," she said. "They told us to give the medications time to work. They refused to call for medical transport so we demanded they release Tanner so we could take him to another hospital."

When Tanner arrived at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, about 50 miles west of Palatka, he was admitted for observation and testing. By Friday morning, doctors advised the family that they suspected he had meningitis and ordered a spinal tap to confirm their suspicion.

"Tanner tested positive for bacterial meningitis and was transferred to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit," said Whitehill. "Tanner's condition seemed to be stable most of Friday till the evening hours when his vitals were declining and sent him for a CAT scan and placed him on a ventilator. On Saturday, the scan showed excessive swelling and fluid build up on the brain. Doctors advised us that they needed to put a drain tube in his head to release the fluid build up for fear of brain damage."

The drain tube initially appeared to be working but early Sunday morning, Tanner's condition took a drastic turn. That was when doctors saw that his brain had shifted and that the fluid from his brain showed signs of the parasite. The family was told he had a brain-eating amoeba and a very slim chance of survival.

"At 12pm on Sunday, doctors met with us and said that Tanner was in fact brain dead, and the decision was made to remove the ventilator," said Whitehill.

Tanner's mom said that their July trip was the first time they had visited Ragans Family Campground in Madison, Florida, and that she had read online reviews of the place. She was aware of the existence of brain-eating amoebas she told TODAY, but unaware of how they were contracted.

"The water looked very clean and looked like it was filtered and colored," she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Naegleria is an ameba (single-celled living organism) commonly found in warm freshwater (for example, lakes, rivers, and hot springs) and soil. Only one species (type) of Naegleria infects people: Naegleria fowleri." People can become infected when they are swimming and water containing the parasite goes up their nose and travels up to the brain, where it destroys the brain tissue.

The lake at the campground has since been closed and Whitehill is asking people to sign a petition in Tanner's honor, asking for warning signs to be placed at public swimming areas.

Whitehill and her family are mourning the loss of their boy, who she said loved hunting, fishing, sports, swimming and wildlife.

Tanner loved being outdoors.
Tanner loved being outdoors.Alicia Whitehill

"The doctors told us that if he had not been misdiagnosed and treated with wrong medications, that he might have had a better chance of earlier identification of the virus and faster treatment of correct medications with a small hope of survival," she said.

Whitehill said her family is seeking legal representation due to the misdiagnosis. For now, she's trying to comfort her other children and remember her son.

"He was a very mature and responsible young man for his age," Whitehill said of Tanner. "He was loved by everyone and he loved everyone he met."

Whitehill hopes parents will be more aware of the rare but deadly amoeba after learning Tanner's story.

"Don't think that because the water looks clean that it is safe," she said.

Tanner is survived by his mom, his stepfather George Whitehill, 50, his dad, Travis Wall, 40, his brother Tucker Wall, 18, and his twin sisters Abigail and Cheyenne Wall, both 9.