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Holiday boy, 4, dies 15 hours after falling ill; officials suspect meningitis

HOLIDAY — They were baking Christmas cookies Saturday night, Rachael Edwards remembers. Amonti Saunders, her 4-year-old son, was already consumed with the holiday preparations, jotting wish lists and scouting toys.

That night, they made snowman and fir tree shapes with the dough. Then his head started to hurt.

Edwards sat at her mother's home Wednesday surrounded by family and told the story of the last 15 hours of her son's life. She thinks it was bacterial meningitis. The family won't know for sure until the Pasco County Health Department gets lab results back. No one knows how Amonti contracted it.

She didn't have a thermometer, but Amonti's forehead was hot to the touch. His legs hurt. Edwards, 24, put a cold rag on his head. She gave her son children's Tylenol and alternated it with Motrin through the night. Around 3 a.m., he broke into a sweat, she said, but it just smelled different. The fever broke. She went back to bed.

Amonti woke at 7 a.m., and the fever was back. At 7:45 a.m., he crawled out of his room because his legs hurt so bad. Purple splotches covered his face and arms.

"I knew something was really wrong," Edwards said.

She whisked him into a car and raced to a nearby fire station. There, he was loaded into an ambulance. Paramedics gave him Benadryl and an IV. They hadn't seen symptoms like his.

At a nearby hospital, nurses wheeled Amonti into a trauma center. He grew listless. His tongue swelled. His heart slowed. Doctors asked Edwards to step out of the room. They did chest compressions, but he slipped away. It was 10 a.m. Sunday.

"I couldn't believe what was going on," she said. "It was so fast."

Now, Edwards knows little more than she did over the weekend. Doctors said they suspected bacterial meningitis, a disease spread through direct contact with a person or their body fluids. It's known to be fatal. Amonti had textbook symptoms: sudden fever, intense headache, nausea, stiff neck, a rash and vomiting.

Over the past five years, there have been as many confirmed cases of meningitis in Pasco County and one death. Test results from Amonti should come back this week, said Deanna Krautner spokeswoman for the health department. Still, no one is sure how or where Amonti picked up whatever made him ill.

After hearing the news, directors at Safari Christian School, which Amonti attended since he was a baby, called the health department for direction.

Mark Schiefer, the school's chairman, said he was told by the health department that Amonti's illness was not contracted there. As a precaution, though, the school shut down Monday for cleaning, and most of the students have since been vaccinated.

"We would have done it anyway," he said, "just knowing what little we know about the disease."

Family members made a small shrine to Amonti at his grandmother's house Wednesday. There were candles and photos and a Woody doll from Toy Story.

Amonti — "Monty" — was born on April Fool's day 2009. He loved running around outside and pulling off lizards' tails and listening to Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys.

Draped over a chair in the house was his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costume. A photo next to it shows him wearing a Transformers costume on Halloween with the Ninja Turtles shell. On a Thanksgiving drawing from school, he immortalized his gratitude for his mother and his toys.

Scribbled on his Christmas list: a helicopter, a dragon lizard and a rabbit.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Alex Orlando can be reached at aorlando@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6247.

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