Twenty-year-old Koral Reef's life was just beginning. She said yes to the dress and married her high school sweetheart. But Reef never got the chance to enjoy her happily ever after when she contracted a rare, brain-eating amoeba that took her life.
Reef’s mother, Cybil Meister, believes a family trip to Lake Havasu in Arizona was the catalyst for the infection that killed her daughter.
“She started with the headaches, the stiff neck, the sensitivity to light and heat was bad,” Meister told NBC 7.
Around Thanksgiving of 2013, Reef's family noticed something was wrong. By January, things went downhill. In June 2014, she went to the emergency room.
Doctors were never truly able to pinpoint a cause behind Reef’s health issues.
“They said, ‘Oh, she’s having withdrawal from her birth control; It’s a migraine.’ They gave her medicine and sent her home and then she progressively got worse,” recalled her mother.
In September 2014, Reef started losing her vision.
"She went to Temecula Valley and they did an MRI. They showed us the MRI and the amoeba, which they didn't know was an amoeba, but there was a mass covering the entire right side of her brain and partial of her left,” explained Meister.
In October 2014, Reef died.
Doctors say she had a rare but extremely deadly amoeba called Balamuthia. Meister believes her daughter contracted the parasite on that trip to Lake Havasu.
“Balamuthia's mortality rate is very, very high. Only 13 percent of patients survive without any type of treatment,” explained Dr. Navaz Karanjia.
Dr. Karanjia is the Director of Neurocritical Care and the Neuro-ICU at UC San Diego's Health System. She also diagnosed Reef with the amoeba.
She said Balamuthia is inhaled and the parasite has been found in soil and dust. The symptoms of the infection are general – such as headache, fatigue, and a stiff neck – which make it hard to diagnose.
"Usually the initial tests come back negative for the usual bacteria and viruses so medical providers need to know if those test come back negative a parasitic infection could be present,” said Dr. Karanjia.
Reef’s mother is now devoted to raising awareness about the deadly, brain-eating amoeba in her daughter’s name. She has started #TeamKoralReef through Amoeba Awareness.
She's hoping to keep others from experiencing the pain of losing a loved one.
"We're reaching out to people trying to raise awareness because I don't think people understand how serious it can be. It's deadly,” she added.
Dr. Karanjia said a drug has been approved for treatment of another parasite, leishmaniasis, and that drug is being tried for amoebas as well. She said it has shown some promise in treating amoebas like the one that caused Reef's untimely death.