Little Leland Shoemake was a bright, smiley kid. And like most children his age, the six-year-old from Pike County, Georgia, was more than happy spending his time running about outside, doing sports and generally enjoying life.
He loved climbing trees and getting dirty. Indeed, according to his mom Amber the one thing Leland enjoyed most was rolling around in the dirt. She described him on Facebook as “the light of our life” and “the center of the family.”
Shoemake, who was born prematurely, was a smart little boy. With a hunger for learning and knowledge, he enjoyed school and spent hours watching documentaries on the History channel and The Weather Channel. Amber affectionately called him “our little nerd.”
Little Shoemake also developed a natural interest for others and was, his mom says, a sociable kid. Indeed, he loved chatting with everyone he met and his friendly personality meant that often won new buddies.
He was also a movie buff – Jaws was his favorite film, while Steven Spielberg was his favorite director. Indeed, he could often be heard quoting lines from his most-loved movies, much to his family’s amusement.
Shoemake seemed to be having an idyllic family upbringing, but in summer 2015 his life dramatically changed. And tragically it was the thing he loved most – playing in the dirt – that probably lead to his wholly unexpected downfall.
Sadly, the little boy developed a brain infection caused by an amoeba known as Balamuthia mandrillaris. And although doctors couldn’t be 100 percent sure how Shoemake was exposed to it, the organism usually transfers from soil into the body via open cuts or sores – which suggests he picked it up while playing outside.
After feeling unwell for a fortnight, Shoemake’s terrified parents took their son to Henrietta Egleston Hospital for Children. Doctors initially suspected that the little boy had meningitis, but they later confirmed that his symptoms were the result of an amoeba-related brain infection.
Indeed, such brain infections are rare, hence the initial confusion. Shoemake was put on ten medications, each of which had side effects. While he lay in his hospital bed the little boy had to battle with fever, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea and dizziness; he even developed problems with his sight.
Sadly, Shoemake deteriorated and, after fighting against the infection for almost a month, he lost his brave struggle on September 25, 2015. Heartbroken, his parents struggled to understand how their son could have died in such a tragic, unforeseen way.
What happened next, however, would provide real comfort to the bereft mom and dad. While preparing for their son’s funeral, they found something on the living-room table that surprised them and stopped them in their tracks.
It was a handwritten note from their little boy, and it read, “Still with you. Thank you Mom & Dad. Love.” Shoemake had also drawn a red heart containing three words: “mom,” “dad” and “love.”
“When Tim and I came home for the first time to get [Leland’s] clothes to be buried in,” Amber later wrote on Facebook, “this is the note we found from him on the table in the living room. We have no idea when he wrote it but you can tell he was always a special child. We will love you forever Leland. Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite!”
Overcome by her son’s heartfelt act, Amber shared an image of his letter on the social network, where she’d been documenting her son’s illness. The touching photo has since been shared more than 3,000 times and has over 25,000 likes. Over 4,000 people, meanwhile, have added their own comments in tribute.
Apparently Shoemake would often leave hand-drawn images and other little notes around the home for his parents to find, but this one would be the most cherished. So much so, in fact, that the family have had it framed; it now has pride of place on the living-room wall.
Writing on the same Facebook page, Amber continued, “I was over protective of Leland and tried my best to keep him safe. The one thing he loved most was playing in the dirt. I never imagined that would be the thing that would take him from me.”
During her son’s brief time in hospital Amber set up a GoFundMe page called “Help For Leland.” And by doing so she hoped to receive help paying hospital bills that the family’s health insurance wouldn’t stretch to.
At the time, however, the mom didn’t know that the money raised would actually help to also pay for her son’s funeral. This sad story really touched people’s hearts – indeed, almost 700 donations, totaling more than $26,000, were received.
Since her family’s tragic loss, Amber has channeled her energies into creating the Leland Shoemake Foundation. A celebration of her son’s short but happy life, the foundation’s main aim is to raise awareness about the amoeba that killed her son.
The foundation website details the symptoms the amoeba can cause, which allows parents to spot a possible infection in their child and, potentially, to avoid the fate that Shoemake suffered. So while the death of little Leland was tragic, it wasn’t entirely in vain. On the foundation’s Facebook page Amber wrote, “Everything I do will be in his honor. He was such a wonderful boy and my best friend.”