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updated: 9/6/2013 10:24 PM

Arkansas girl recovering from rare infection goes swimming

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  • Associated Press/April 2013Kali Hardig, 12, who has been recovering from a rare and often-fatal brain infection, went swimming Friday.

      Associated Press/April 2013Kali Hardig, 12, who has been recovering from a rare and often-fatal brain infection, went swimming Friday.

 
Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- An Arkansas girl who has been recovering from a rare and often-fatal infection caused by a brain-eating amoeba went swimming at a hospital pool on Friday.

That marks a milestone for 12-year-old Kali Hardig, who health officials believe got sick because of a trip to a now-shuttered water park.

The amoeba that caused Kali's infection is often found in warm bodies of freshwater. Called Naegleria fowleri, it typically enters the body through a swimmer's nose, where it can then travel to the brain and cause a devastating infection like the one Kali had.

"She was fearful of water because that's how she got sick, and so to get over that fear, they took her swimming in the therapeutic pool," one of Kali's doctors, Dr. Esther Tompkins, said. "After she got over her initial hesitancy, she even started going underwater."

The fact that Kali is alive, let alone able to swim, speak, eat and walk, is remarkable.

A boy in Florida recently died after he was diagnosed with the same infection, primary amebic meningoencephalitis. There were 128 such infections reported in the United States from 1962 through 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Before Kali, doctors could only point to one known survivor in the U.S. and another in Mexico.

Doctors say Kali's success is due in large part to experimental treatment and early detection and diagnosis.

Kali's mother, Traci Hardig, brought her to Arkansas Children's Hospital with a nasty fever on July 19.

Doctors cooled Kali's body down to try to reduce swelling associated with the infection, and they won clearance to treat her with a breast cancer drug.

Tests have since shown no sign of the parasite in her system.

Kali is expected to be released from Arkansas Children's Hospital later this month.

In the meantime, she will continue with her recovery. She's gone from being hooked up to a ventilator to breathing on her own and relearning to speak, walk and eat.

Kali's trip to the pool comes a day after her doctors allowed her to leave the hospital to attend a fundraiser at a steakhouse, where she had filet mignon, a baked potato, salad and a roll.

"She couldn't eat it all, but she ate some of each one of them," her mother said. "Her stomach is still so small that she fills up quick."

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