What's in the Water: A mother's heartache after son's death - KPLC 7 News, Lake Charles, Louisiana

What's in the Water: A mother's heartache after son's death

(KPLC) - When a deadly amoeba was found in the state's municipal water supply last fall, questions and concerns about the safety of drinking water swirled across every part of the state. It marked the first time in United States history that this amoeba was found in treated drinking water.

Three people died from the brain-eating amoeba, naegleria fowleri, and it has been a long fight for the mother of the first victim.

28-year-old Jeff Cusimano was his mother Patrice's only child. "He was kind, generous, good-hearted," she said.

Jeff was a business student at the University of New Orleans, on the Dean's List, and temporarily living at home with his mom in St. Bernard Parish where he was healthy and active - other than his allergies. "If he didn't use this neti pot every day that he used to cleanse his sinuses, he would get congested and it would usually lead to an infection," said Patrice, "so he used it every day."

Through his years of using the neti pot, there was never a problem until June 2011. "He mowed the lawn for me on Thursday and was fine. Then Friday night, when he came home from work he complained that he had a headache. Sometime over Saturday into Sunday he started vomiting," said Patrice.

On Monday, Patrice took Jeff to the doctor, who sent him to the emergency room. "He had the fever and the pain Monday when we got to the hospital and I never did get to speak to him again," she said.

A spinal tap showed primary amebic meningoencephalitis, something infectious disease physician, Dr. Timothy Haman, with CHRISTUS St. Patrick Hospital says can only be contracted when water goes through the nose to the brain. "Unfortunately it's almost universally fatal. The fatality rate is about 97 percent," said Dr. Haman.

Doctors pumped Jeff full of antibiotics, but he died the next day. "You're not supposed to bury your children," said Patrice, "he was my only child."

After Jeff's death, Patrice fought to find the source of the deadly amoeba. Health officials came to her house in Arabi and concluded that the contamination was isolated. "They found the bacteria in my house," she said.

But then, another death six months later. This time it was a woman in DeSoto Parish who also contracted the brain-eating amoeba through the tap water in her neti pot. And a third death in 2013: a four-year-old child in St. Bernard Parish got the amoeba through the water on a slip-n-slide. "It doesn't matter if it was rare," said Patrice, "it happened and it happened again and it happened again."

Those deaths grabbed national headlines and the water testing that followed showed the deadly amoeba was present in both DeSoto's and St. Bernard Parish's public water supply. It was not just isolated to the homes, according to Jake Causey with the Department of Health and Hospital's Safe Drinking Water Program. "It was not expected to be there. It's never been detected in any treated water supply in the United States," said Causey.

The next question was if other water systems in the state could also be at risk. "When it affects you personally, it changes everything and you just want to cry from the rooftops, be careful," said Patrice, "I hope Jeff's death was not in vain."

Higher levels of chlorine can kill the deadly brain-eating amoeba. In the second part of this series, learn how a new law that takes effect August 1 requires every water system in the state to meet higher chlorine standards and why it is likely affecting the water smell in your home.

Copyright 2014 KPLC. All rights reserved.

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