By Nate Smith
Confusion and uncertainty surround the death of a Martin County man that family members say could have been caused by a very rare disease he caught while swimming at West Boggs Park.
Waylon Abel, 30, Shoals, died Aug. 7 at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Evansville, possibly from a disease called primary amebic meningoencephalitis, caused by a very rare parasite that has no cure and kills almost everyone who contracts it. It has also been called the brain-eating amoeba.
According to Waylon’s father John, samples from his son’s body are currently being studied at St. Mary’s Health Center in Evansville, to find out what killed him.
Neither Martin County Health Nurse Julia Albright, nor county Health Officer Dr. Larry Sutton would confirm the tests, citing medical confidentiality. Vanderburgh County Health Officer Raymond Nicholson confirmed late Wednesday there are tests being done to see if Waylon did have the rare, but deadly disease.
A death certificate dated Aug. 13 lists a cause of death as suspected primary amebic meningoencephalitis, the disease caused by the parasite. There is no other way, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the disease can be contracted.
Sutton said he assumes there are tests being done to see if Waylon did die from this disease, but said the death certificate was signed prematurely.
“The results of the autopsy are not back,” Sutton said.
Primary amebic meningoencephalitis is very rare, affecting only a few out of millions that swim in freshwater lakes, streams and ponds. West Boggs Superintendent Mike Axsom would not comment on Abel’s death or the circumstances surrounding it, but said anything else will come from local health authorities.
“We have assured them we stand ready to follow any advice, recommendation or mandates they may deem appropriate, if and when they find any of the answers to the many unanswered questions,” Axsom said in a statement.
Although the disease has not been confirmed, Martin County health officials have released a statement on the dangers of recreational water illnesses, recommending nose plugs or holding their nose when diving into freshwater. John Abel said the test takes 30 days to confirm after brain tissue is taken and tested.
He said his late son went swimming at the beach on West Boggs Park July 15. Twenty-three days later, he was dead. Waylon left two children and a girlfriend behind.
John said his son was feeling bad around Aug. 3, complaining of headaches, nausea and stiffness. He rested until the morning of Aug. 6, when his girlfriend, Rene Sipes, felt he needed to go to the hospital.
“She’s a registered nurse also, so she saw something was wrong,” John said.
Waylon called his father before he left.
“He called me at 7:05 a.m. He told me to pray for him and he was scared,” John said. “I told him I would, and I did.”
He was taken to the emergency room at Jasper Memorial Hospital where he was treated and then discharged with medication for bacterial and viral meningitis. The doctor there told the family Waylon would be better in a couple days.
But Waylon was not. He got worse and then was taken back to Jasper Memorial later that evening at around 7.
From there, it progressively became worse.
“At about 2 a.m. (that morning), he said ‘Dad, something broke.’” That was the last thing he said to me,” John said. “I turned the lights on, his eyes were dilated and bulging out of his head.”
He was then taken for a CAT scan and 90 minutes later, the worst was said.
“When they were bringing him back, I was standing in the hallway,” Abel said. “There was a doctor. I had never seen him before. He looked at me and said, ‘There is no hope.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said that he had a brain herniation and there is no hope. I said, ‘Get him out of here now.’”
John wanted his son taken to a hospital where there was a neurologist on staff. He was taken by helicopter to St. Mary’s where it was confirmed by the neurologist at the hospital.
“He said ‘Too much time has gone by, there was nothing he could do.’ My son died at 4:25 p.m. that afternoon,” John said.
Abel said he has no bad feelings toward anyone, the doctors or the medical staff. No one was really sure what Waylon died from until the death certificate came through the mail. Waylon’s body was later cremated and then buried, after an autopsy was requested by the family. The certificate, is electronically signed by physician Munish H. Lapsia and Nicholson. John Abel then started researching the disease and asking questions.
“It’s something you hope you never go through and it convinced me to (speak out) because they were not doing enough to protect people,” Abel said.
Primary amebic meningeoencephalitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control, comes from an infection from the naegleria, a single-celled organism that commonly lives in warm freshwater.
The Naegleria folweri enters the body, according to the CDC, through the nose, after which it travels up to the brain and starts destroying brain tissue.
Naegleria folweri cannot be contracted by drinking water, only through the nose. Even though millions swim in freshwater lakes, streams and ponds yearly, only 32 infections of the parasite have been reported from 2002 to 2011, according to the CDC.
In all but one case since 1962, all have died from the disease.
The symptoms begin much like the flu, with headache, fever, nausea and vomiting. A stiff neck, confusion, seizures and hallucinations then follow.
The CDC says the disease spreads rapidly.
Typically, the CDC said on its website, many think the disease is bacterial meningitis. Recently, the parasite claimed the life of an Oklahoma boy who was swimming in the Red River.
The disease has also been linked to sinus clearing pots like the Neti Pot if people use tap water instead of distilled or sterile water.
The disease is not to be confused with West Nile meningoencephalitis, which is contracted from mosquitoes that have the West Nile virus. According to the Indiana Department of Health, West Nile has been detected in the area.