Tonight was maybe an end of an era; certainly the end of some wonderful memories dating back to 1928.
Willow Springs Water Park closed tonight and won't be opening their doors again.
Meanwhile, a young girl fights for her life in a nearby hospital, suffering from Parasitic Meningitis.
The two things are inextricably linked and yet there is no concrete proof that they are.
These are the facts as I know them.
Three summers ago, a young boy swam at several places - he had gone swimming several times the last week of his life in private outdoor pools. He also went swimming at Willow Springs and went into a coma the next and died several days later of a rare form of Meningitis. The incubation period varies but it usually takes 3 days.
The parasite that causes this exists everywhere in Southern watering places. It even exists in tap water that is warm. (You can get it from doing a sinus rinse with water that hasn't been boiled or isn't distilled although that is very rare - still, it is possible). Millions are exposed to it every summer in the Southern states as people do water sports, swim, go tubing, etc. This amoeba is present in every lake, creek, stream, and pond in warm weather. It is also in pools that are not well-chlorinated. Basically it's everywhere in the summer where people gather to play outdoors in the water.
However, almost no one contracts this form of Meningitis and medical science has no idea why some people do while most people - the vast majority - do not.
You can swallow contaminated water and that's fine - you can't get this form of Meningitis from drinking contaminated water. But if you are one of the few who is susceptible to this amoeba, if you breathe in water through your nose, the amoeba can go straight to your brain. When that happens, it is almost always fatal.
David and Lou Ann have seen this Water Park as a ministry, an opportunity to serve others and provide a fun place for families to gather, picnic, and swim. David first started working at this place when he was twelve-years-old. He and Lou Ann are devastated that another 12-year-old is fighting for her life now after swimming at the park.
But this is not the only place where the girl went swimming in the days leading up to her illness. Like the child 3 years ago, this child had also been swimming in more than one place before she got sick.
This time, as three years ago, the Park's water tested out extremely well, better than most water parks in Arkansas. This time in fact, they were told the water was consistent with drinking water, it is that clean. I know they use several forms of chlorine and they have added equipment to keep the water cooler than lakes, ponds, streams are in the summer. Those are the ways to fight this amoeba - lots of chlorine and cooler than normal water temps and David and Lou Ann have been careful to do all of that.
The Park was closed because of statistics. When the first child got this form of Meningitis three years ago, there was a 1 in 1200 chance that it came from Willow Springs. When a second child got it recently, the percentage dropped to 1 in 700 probability. (There is still a 400 % greater chance that someone would drown at the water park than that they would contract Meningitis.) That's as low a percentage as the CDC allows for water parks.
Because Willow Springs is fed by a lake and because they have slides which means there is a greater chance that water can go up someone's nose as they slide into the pool than if they were just tubing or boating, the CDC automatically closes a lake-fed water park if there is two instances of this disease within a certain number of years.
The fact that the water tested out to be extremely clean and well-chlorinated and that thousands (literally) of people swim at this park and have for decades and never have a problem doesn't affect CDC policy on this issue.
It is always a tragedy when a child gets seriously ill. Always.
David and Lou Ann love children and have worked for about 8 years to provide a safe, affordable, family-friendly environment for the people in this area. Their own grandchildren regularly play in the water and have from the time they were babies. Had they thought for one minute that the water might be a serious source of Meningitis, they would never have operated it. They certainly never would have put their own grandchildren in the water or allowed anyone else's in it day after day.
They are praying for the little girl and are devastated at the thought that there is even a 1 in 700 chance that the child might have gotten sick from playing at Willow Springs. And even now, as they abruptly lose the Water Park, their ministry, and the dream that the park has represented for so many decades for David, their thoughts are with the child in the hospital and her family.
In response to questions about how they are taking this, their response is simple:
We trust God and even though we can't see it now at all, we believe He will eventually bring something good out of this. This wasn't said glibly or easily but they were still able to say it, ala Romans 8:28.
Please pray for the young girl and her family.
And please pray for the Ratliffs as well.