Family issues warning after young mom dies from 'brain-eating' amoeba

OKLAHOMA CITY -- An Oklahoma couple says what started as a severe headache quickly turned deadly for their 24-year-old daughter Elizabeth Knight. The young mom had originally been diagnosed with bacterial meningitis -- but when she continued to rapidly deteriorate, doctors started asking more questions.

Knight died as a result of a brain-eating amoeba.


"She had a smile that could light up a room," Alonie McKown said.

It is a smile Alonie and Mike McKown now only get to see in pictures.

"Just getting up every day, putting one foot in front of the other has been difficult," Mike McKown said.

A fun day at Lake Murray in August of 2015 turned into tragedy for the family. Just a few days after taking her two young kids for a swim, Elizabeth Knight fell ill.

What started as a severe headache got much worse.

"Her roommate had said that she woke up stumbling through the house. She was incoherent," Alonie McKown said.

Knight was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, but when she continued to rapidly deteriorate, doctors started asking more questions.

"The history of her having an exposure to freshwater, swimming in Lake Murray, freshwater lake, was exposed at that time, and that's the first time that "Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis" was brought up," Mike McKown said.

It was the disease called “PAM” that took the 24-year-old woman's life.

"It is extremely rare, but it can cause swelling of the lining of the brain and spinal cord," Joli Stone, an epidemiologist, said. "It's caused by an amoeba called Naegleria fowleri.”

Health experts say the amoeba is found in warm, fresh bodies of water like lakes, rivers and ponds.

They say the free-living organism travels up the nose and into the brain.

Symptoms typically start one to nine days after it is contracted.

"They start off usually with a high fever then nausea and vomiting, and then later develop altered mental status and even coma," Stone explained.

Though nothing can bring Knight back, her parents are keeping her memory alive by raising awareness about the disease.

"There's no doubt in our mind that she would want us to do everything we could to prevent this from happening to another family," Mike McKown said.

They are not asking you to not enjoy the water -- but they do ask that you take precautions, like wearing a nose plug or holding your nose before you go under.

To learn more, visit Beth Smiles Amoeba Awareness and the CDC’s website.