LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A 12-year-old girl who contracted a rare brain infection at a water park in Arkansas returned to the site on Monday — her first time back since her illness — to help owners announce a benefit fishing tournament for her later this month.
Kali Hardig was diagnosed with a form of parasitic meningitis called primary amebic meningoencephalitis in July, and although it is often fatal she recovered after being treated at Arkansas Children's Hospital.
"There are no hard feelings," said Kali's mother, Traci Hardig, who was with her daughter for the announcement at Willow Springs Water Park, where the benefit will be held. "They (the water park owners) are just a family, just like us. This is their livelihood. It's OK to come out here. It's OK to support them."
After Kali's illness was diagnosed as being caused by a brain-eating, water-borne amoeba called Naegleria fowleri, water park owners David and Lou Ann Ratliff closed the sandy-bottomed lake to swimming and said they only would reopen it if they could afford a cement bottom.
State health officials have said another case of the parasitic meningitis was possibly connected to the water park, located just south of Little Rock, in 2010.
The amoeba is often found in warm bodies of freshwater, such as lakes, rivers and hot springs. It reaches the brain after contaminated water is inhaled through the nose, though health officials said the occurrence is so rare that the illness affects about one in 33 million people.
Before participating in Monday's news conference about the benefit, Kali — whose name is pronounced KAY'-lee — quietly walked to the edge of the lake by herself.
"I'm proud of her," Traci Hardig said as her daughter stood and looked at the water.
The moment was less dramatic for Kali. "I was just looking for fish," she said.
David Ratliff said he's stocking the lake with catfish, between 1½ and 12 pounds, for the Oct. 26 tournament. The entry fee is $20 in advance and $25 the day of the event, with the proceeds going to Kali and her family. The park also will have carnival games for a fall festival that coincides with the tournament.
Ratliff said swimming still will be off-limits. There will be hookups for RVs and storage for those vehicles, boats and campers.
Traci Hardig said Kali is continuing with physical, speech and occupational therapy while attending school. The girl appears unaffected by her ordeal, for which she was hospitalized into September.
She speaks clearly, moves smoothly and said that she performed a cartwheel over the weekend.
Kali said it felt good to return to Willow Springs.
"I like having fun here," she said. "I have a lot of fun here with my friends."
The 85-year-old park has long been a destination for school field trips and family recreation.
Kali's mother said she hasn't lost sight of how fortunate she is to still have her daughter.
"I had a lot of faith in this," Traci Hardig said. "I feel like I got a miracle."
Health officials say there were 128 reported infections like Kali's in the United States between 1962 and 2012. Before Kali, doctors could only point to one known survivor in the U.S. and another in Mexico.