Rare amoeba claims life of local boy

Clint Riese
Staff Writer

A fun outing on a lake turned to tragedy for a local family recently. Jack Ariola Erenberg died last Monday, Aug. 6, after suffering an infection caused by a rare amoeba.

The 9-year-old spent much of his life in Wyoming and Forest Lake, where his father, Jim Ariola Jr. has lived for seven years.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control confirmed this Monday that the cause of death was primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), a very rare form of meningitis caused by an amoeba associated with warm freshwater. It is strongly believed that Erenberg contracted the amoeba in Stillwater’s Lily Lake about two weeks ago.

Erenberg, his mother and sisters went to Grand Marais to go camping that weekend, according to Jim Ariola Jr. Erenberg spent Friday and Saturday nights hospitalized in Grand Marais before being airlifted to Duluth early Sunday. He passed away in the early morning hours on Monday.

“It just attacked him so fast,” said Ariola Jr.

Doctors originally suspected meningitis. It was not until the organ donation process started that the family learned of the amoeba.

Forty cases of PAM were reported in the United States from 2001 through 2011, but nearly all in the South. In Minnesota’s only previous case, which took place in 2010, Lily Lake was also the likely place of infection.

Ariola Jr. swam in that lake as a child during breaks from summer hockey camp and recalls it being shallow and mucky, key conditions for the amoeba Naegleria fowleri.

“I just don’t understand why it doesn’t happen other places,” he said. “I’m almost positive it has, but without a real autopsy or detailed testing…I guess you just never know.”

Hockey & More

Erenberg had recently moved with his mother, Sarah Erenberg, from Rush City to Stillwater. He was set to enter fourth grade this fall.

Ariola Jr. describes his son as a creative boy who enjoyed “anything and everything.” Whether sports or Legos, Erenberg kept busy. He played T-ball in Rush City and would go fishing or to watch wrestling matches with his dad.

“He would get a hold of tape and use rolls and rolls; he’d make frogs of out tape,” Ariola Jr. said. “He loved his mom’s cat. He was such a happy kid. It’s just unbelievable.”

The boy’s main love, though, was hockey. Erenberg joined the Forest Lake Hockey Association (FLHA) at the age of 3 or 4 and spent five seasons at the mite level.

He stood out for his unbridled enthusiasm for the sport.

“Jack was a fun-loving kid who always had a smile on his face,” said FLHA Mite Director Jeff Dzurik, who coached Erenberg as a 5- and 6-year-old. “He loved coming to hockey.”

Mike Green, who coached Erenberg’s Badgers team this winter, remembers him for always being among the first to hit the ice.

“He was a great kid, he never complained and always had fun,” Green said. “I remember in the last game him saving a couple of goals on defense by getting back quickly and playing his heart out. He was a joy to be around and he got along well with the kids.”

Erenberg took an interest in the goalie position last season. He had his own goalie equipment and even attended a night camp where he worked with older kids in the program.

“He fell in love with goalie,” said Billy Dochniak, the goalie coach for the Badgers. “He wanted to be a goalie so bad. I had to make him skate out [to play other positions].”

The ultimate showing of the boy’s passion came Saturday at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Circle Pines. After the service, the coffin was escorted through a path lined on both sides by kids dressed in hockey jerseys and holding hockey sticks to form an arch. And Jack Ariola Erenberg, too, sported a hockey jersey.

Memorial Plans

Memorials for the Jack Ariola Erenberg Trust are being collected at Central Bank, 1650 S. Lake St. in Forest Lake.

FLHA is also planning a tribute and will discuss ideas at the next board meeting. Those with ideas are asked to contact a board member. Contact information can be found at www.flhockey.org.