A Tampa-based air medical transport service provided critical, complimentary assistance Wednesday to a Charlotte County teen suffering from a rare brain-eating amoeba.
Caleb Ziegelbauer, 13, began complaining of headaches five days after swimming at a Port Charlotte park on July 1. After becoming feverish and disoriented, his family drove the boy to a local hospital, where he was diagnosed with meningitis. Doctors believe Naegleria fowleri, a rare brain-eating amoeba, swam up his nose.
The condition is fatal in over 97% of patients, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Although Caleb has fared better than most in fighting off his infection for nearly two months, he now needs specialized treatment from a Chicago health care facility. When the family’s insurance denied payment for medical air transport services, Tampa’s Jet ICU stepped up to the plate and provided a free flight Wednesday afternoon from Tampa International Airport (TPA).
“This kid has got one of the most rare brain-eating diseases – he’s beating it – and we don’t want a couple of hour flight to stand between him and hopeful recovery,” said Jared Wayt, director of emergency medical services.
“This is what we do, we love doing it and we’re happy to help out.”
Wayt said the insurance company believed the boy could receive treatment elsewhere. He disagreed with that statement, noting the rarity of the infection and the need for specialized rehabilitation, as it has severely impacted his brain.
In the last 10 years, the CDC recorded just 31 infections in the U.S., with 28 coming from recreational swimming. Most of those occurred during the summer months in southern states, and symptoms are similar to more common illnesses, such as bacterial meningitis.
Just four out of 154 known infected people from 1962 to 2021 have survived, according to the CDC. Those harrowing statistics, said Wayt, underscore the need for Caleb to receive the best treatment available.
“The place up in Chicago is world renowned for doing what they do,” said Wayt. “We are happy to step in and get this kid up there at no cost to the family, obviously.”
That place in downtown Chicago is the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, and he said the flight, which should only take about two hours in one of the JET ICU’s seven custom Learjets, would typically cost $30,000 – $40,000.
Wayt called the Learjet, which departed TPA at 1 p.m. Wednesday, a flying intensive care unit. A critical care flight paramedic, nurse and Wayt were to accompany Caleb and his parents on the flight.
The plane, explained Wayt, features the same equipment found in a hospital’s ICU. The company is the only air ambulatory service in America accredited by the Nation Accreditation Alliance of Medical Transport Applications (NAAMTA). With seven jets, it is also the largest long-range air ambulance fleet in North America, according to the website.
According to its website, the company, founded in 2003, can have a plane take off from TPA within 90 minutes of receiving a call. Wayt said the JET ICU, which owns and operates its fleet and utilizes in-house pilots and medical personnel, conducts 600 to 700 flights annually.
Providing complimentary services to special cases, said Wayt, is becoming routine for the company. He added that it offers “a handful” annually but could also have two tomorrow, depending on the circumstances.
While JET ICU employs 75 people, Wayt said it is still a small family-owned business that looks out for the surrounding community, and Caleb’s case “hit home.”
“With something with such a high mortality rate, and to see him survive it and then denied the extra care to get over the hump …” began Wayt. “It’s crazy to believe that this kid has pulled through so much, and if we can help him with a couple-hour flight up to Chicago – then, by all means, we’re happy to.”
Caleb, added Wayt, has medical issues with his brain from the amoeba and has a long road to recovery. However, he said the boy is faring better than 98% of those infected.
Founded in 2003, JET ICU originally operated out of St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport. The company then built a hangar at the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport before outgrowing that and moving into TPA two years ago.
JET ICU is building an even more expansive hangar in Tampa, which Wayt called the company’s “forever home.”
The Ziegelbauer family has raised over $64,000 through a Go Fund Me page, which can be viewed here.