The last thing 19-year-old Kerry Stoutenburgh said to her longtime boyfriend, Luke Carquillat, before she died from a brain-eating amoeba called Naegleria Fowleri was: “I love you.”
“And I said, ‘I love you too, lovey,’ ” Carquillat, 20, tells PEOPLE. “And then she was gone.”
Stoutenburgh was swimming in Maryland’s Conowingo creek with Carquillat and her family in August when the amoeba – found predominantly in warm freshwater rivers or in soil – went up her nose and eventually traveled to her brain. Days after returning home to New York, she began complaining of headaches and sensitivity to light.
“We were with Kerry’s cousins and she jumped from a bridge into the water like eight times. She’s usually good at keeping her nose closed and blowing out,” Carquillat says. “But one time she complained the water got up her nose. The doctor later said in that moment her fate was sealed.”
Stoutenburgh’s condition dramatically declined in the days after she went swimming. When she began to hallucinate and babble gibberish, Carquillat knew he had lost his “soul mate.”
“I promised her I would be with her until the end and that I’d do anything for her,” says Carquillat. “What Kerry and I had was a fairy tale. I stayed with her until the very, very end. Like I said I always would.”
Doctors were unable to determine what was causing Stoutenburgh’s erratic behavior before declaring her brain dead on August 30. When a culture came back the next day confirming a Naegleria Fowleri diagnosis, she was taken off of life support.
The couple met while attending high school in Kingston, New York. After graduation, they lived in an apartment together a block away from Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. Stoutenburgh was a student at Brooklyn College studying to be a cinematographer.
“She started studying communications, but I encouraged her to follow her love of movies,” says Carquillat. “She was the type of person who would yell at the TV screen – not because of something somebody did, but because of the way it was produced.”
“She was brilliant, she captured things that other people didn’t. She saw the world differently.”
Carquillat is finishing a movie project that Stoutenburgh started earlier in the summer.
“She had a GoPro and she was making a film of our trips to Brighton Beach, she focused mostly on landscapes,” he says. ” She loved films more than anyone I have ever met. Our favorite thing to do was to lay around watching movies and videos.”
What You Need To Know About Naegleria Fowleri, the Brain-Eating Amoeba
And while Stoutenburgh shot the ocean, Carquillat, also a cinematographer, captured her on camera.
“I have so many pictures and videos of Kerry, she was perfection to me, she was beautiful and I loved being with her,” he says. “All that love made me want to capture photos of her. Her subtle facial expressions when she was filming – I’ll always remember those moments.”
In Stoutenburgh’s last days, Carquillat refused to leave her side.
“One of the reasons Kerry loved me was because I was always very strong for her if she was scared,” he says. “When her head started pounding and she felt woozy, she got so scared, she had no idea what was going on, so I stayed with her.”
“And then she started to lose her mind – crying and then going back to normal constantly and speaking incoherently and screaming and crawling on the floor.”
Stoutenburgh’s family held a wake for her at a church in Kingston a week after she passed.
“We were supposed to live a long life and have a family and now it’s all gone,” says Carquillat. “I got to experience true love for two years and I’m so grateful, but I lost the love of my life.”
“And now, I have to be strong for Kerry – because that’s what she loved most about me. And I can’t let her down.”