Possible Cecil water ties explored in rare death
Teen contracted amoeba in Conowingo creek, uncle says
— The uncle of a New York woman who recently died from a rare brain infection believes she contracted the disease while swimming in Conowingo last month.
“People need to know about this,” Harold T.
O’Neal Jr., of Elkton, said Friday.
Kerry A. Stoutenburgh, 19, from Brooklyn, N.Y., died last Wednesday. On Friday afternoon, New York State Department of Health officials confirmed that Stoutenburgh died of Naegleria fowleri amoeba, which is is commonly found in warm freshwater lakes, rivers and hot springs.
Family members reported that Stoutenburgh swam in local waters while on vacation with family in Maryland and Delaware a month ago.
O’Neal said Stoutenbergh was visiting his Elkton home when she, her sister, her boyfriend and three cousins — O’Neal’s children — decided to go swimming.
“They first went up to Gilpin Falls by Cecil College,” O’Neal said Friday. “Then they went to the trestle bridge in Conowingo. They were jumping off this bridge.”
A popular swimming hole in the Rowlandsville area, it’s part of the Octoraro
Creek’s main stem. However, it’s freshwater, shallow in many places and warmer, making it the perfect breeding ground for the organism that health officials in New York say killed the otherwise healthy 19-year-old.
Stoutenbergh was the only one in her group sickened. According to O’Neal, doctors told the family this was “like a lightning strike” because of the randomness of the attack.
“There was no awareness,” O’Neal said, adding that had he known he would have told them not to swim there.
He said he hoped his niece’s death was not in vain, and that wanted to raise awareness so others use caution when swimming in such water.
Stephanie Garrity, Cecil County Health Officer, said Maryland health officials are monitoring the situation. Garrity has been in contact with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene on the case, which has in turn been communicating with its New York counterpart.
Naegleria fowleri is a naturally occurring organism found in warm freshwaters, Garrity said. Last weekend, while visiting her parents in New York, Stoutenbergh developed a headache and nausea, which led to incoherence and later her death.
Dr. Henry Taylor, clinical deputy health officer for the Cecil County Health Department, said this rare disease is a form of meningitis.
“It’s pretty rapidly fatal,” Taylor said. “Unless (health professionals) are looking for it they won’t be suspicious.”
That’s why Taylor said people with meningitis symptoms such as headache and neck pain — who have been swimming recently in freshwater — need to bring that up to health care providers.
“If diagnosed early there are some treatments that are 95 percent effective,” he said.
Stoutenburgh is believed to be the first person in New York or Maryland to die from the extremely rare parasite. She was a varsity swimmer at Kingston High School and was attending CUNY Brooklyn College, where she majored in film.
Deaths from the “braineating amoeba” are quite rare and more typically found in southern states. According to U.S. Center for Disease Control statistics, fewer than 200 people have died from Naegleriasis in the past 50 years.
“This is tragic and we very much extend our condolences to the family,” Garrity said Friday.
She said the disease enters the body through the nose and gets quickly to the brain. Garrity called this “an unfortunate reminder ... of the low level risk of bacteria” when swimming in freshwater.
According to Garrity, there is more risk — albeit still a low risk — of contracting E coli rather than amoebic encephalitis.
“This was a surprise to all of us,” Garrity said.
Those who choose to swim in local rivers are encouraged to take steps to lessen that risk, Garrity said.
“Hold your nose when jumping in and keep your head above water,” she said. Using a nose clip could help too, she noted.
Taylor also suggested that people who do get water up the nose get it out quickly.
“If anything good can come of this, it’s that heightened awareness of these sorts of things and what you can do to lessen the risk,” Garrity said. “Be vigilant, be aware.”
O’Neal said he was worried that other cases could occur if others aren’t vigilant.
“If it’s there, it could be in other similar bodies of water,” he said. “This thing’s out there.”
Kerry A. Stoutenburgh, 19, from Brooklyn, N.Y., died last week from a rare brain infection that she may have contracted from amoeba in a Cecil County creek.
Don Lebo poses with a sphere bearing “Hope, Md.,”the name that his late wife had given their idyllic model train town.