Florida teen called 'miracle' after surviving brain-eating amoeba

16-year-old treated at Orlando hospital while on vacation

ORLANDO, Fla. – A 16-year-old boy who contracted a brain-eating amoeba in South Florida before doctors in Orlando diagnosed him was called a "miracle" as he prepared to leave the hospital.

Sebastian DeLeon, who contracted Naegleria fowleri in Broward County earlier this month, was taken to Florida Hospital Orlando on Aug. 7 after he developed an intense headache while on vacation with his family at a Central Florida theme park.

"An intense headache so severe that he couldn't tolerate people touching him," said Dr. Humberto Liriano, critical care physician at Florida Hospital for Children, at a press conference Tuesday morning. "They tested the spinal fluid and it came back positive for what we call the amoeba."

Liriano said a pathologist named Sheila diligently studied and then spotted the microscopic single-cell amoeba in the blood sample on the slide.

"I went back and studied it for a while," said Sheila. "The amoebas aren't very active so you have to look and watch. And that's when I saw the pseudopods moving on the amoeba."

That discovery prompted an immediate chain-reaction of critical care.

Liriano said after blood tests, his team cooled DeLeon's body and put him into a coma, all within about 4 hours. Right before that, though, they asked DeLeon to take a pill - a single dose of the breast-cancer drug Impavido, not knowing if he'd ever wake up from the coma.

Todd Maclaughlan, President and CEO of Profounda, Inc., the Central Florida-based pharmaceutical company that packages and distributes the German-made Impavido in the U.S., had the drug sent from his office in south Orlando to Florida Hospital for Children within 12 minutes of receiving the call from the hospital pharmacist.

"It's not just about having the drug, it's people at hospital making sure they're trained, trained to identify the disease," said Maclaughlan. "The drug by itself does nothing without good medical care - the attention of looking at the slide one more time to see if she sees an amoeba. If she hadn't done that none of this would have happened."

Maclaughlan said Impavido was given to the last 3 amoebic infection survivors. The infection has been fatal in 97 percent of the 138 cases in the United States. The key, he said, is getting the drug to a patient at the first sign of symptoms - headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, hallucinations - since the amoeba attacks the brain so quickly.

Doctors don't know why Impavido appears to be effective.

"Since there have only been 4 survivors in the U.S., we can't say for sure why some survive this infection and others do not," said Dr. Rajan Wadhawa, Chief Medical Officer at Florida Hospital for Children.

But Wadhawa said he plans to make the drug available at Florida Hospital.

"Because this infection can be rapidly fatal, minutes count and having the drug at hand is crucial. The hospital has been in close efforts with the company to have the drug available," said Dr. Federico Laham, pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Florida Hospital for Children.

Maclaughlan said he will try to put Impavido in every hospital and would like to see doctors prescribe the drug at the first sign of symptoms to patients who've recently swam in fresh water, rather than wait for tests to come back. He said the only side-effect of the drug is nausea.

"The idea I came up with is rather than leaving the drug in a warehouse, let's get the drug i to the community at as many hospitals as we can, so the drug would be available," said Maclaughlan. "They can pick it up off the shelf." 

The Department of Health believes Sebastian contracted the amoeba while swimming on private property in South Florida.

His mother thanked doctors and Maclaughlan.

"I want to thank God and all his power and for everything he's done in saving our kid's life and putting this wonder medical staff (together)," said Sebastian's mother, Brunilda Gonzalez. "We are so thankful that God has given us a miracle through this medical team and this hospital for having our son back, having him full of life. We are so grateful for the gift of life."

Gonzalez described her son as a "very energetic, wonderful teen."

Sebastian is now one of four people in the last 50 years known to have survived an infection of Naegleria fowleri, which is found in warm freshwater and has a fatality rate of more than 97 percent.

"I have treated amoeba cases in the past, and they've all been fatal, so this is a story that we need to tell," said Dr. Humberto Liriano, adding that he's optimistic that Sebastian will make a full recovery.

News 6 previously reported about the confirmed infection and how the CEO of an Orlando-based company sent out an amoeba-fighting drug after the Broward County case was confirmed.

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.