Note: This article contains graphic content.
Two years ago, 28-year-old Abby Beckley from Oregon was on a vacation when she experienced a shocking medical issue.
CNN reports that Beckley enjoys the outdoors and travel. For one of her adventures, she chose to go on a trip to Alaska to work on a salmon fishing boat. A few days into the trip, Beckley started noticing some strange symptoms pop up.
— CNN (@CNN) February 12, 2018
“My left eye just got really irritated and red, and my eyelid was droopy. I was getting migraines too, and I was like, ‘What is going on?'”
The symptoms persisted for five days and when she returned to the mainland, Beckley took a mirror, pulled down the bottom of her eye and peered into it. There she was shocked to find a tiny, writhing, translucent worm that spanned about half an inch.
“I pulled down the bottom of my eye and noticed that my skin looked weird there. So I put my fingers in with a sort of a plucking motion, and a worm came out … I looked at it, and it was moving … Then it died within about five seconds … I was just in shock. I ran into my crewmate Allison’s room, and I said, ‘I need you to see this! I just pulled a worm out of my eye!'”
Beckley thought she caught the parasitic worm from the salmon she handled on the fishing boat and scoured the internet for an explanation but couldn’t find one. Later, she pulled out another four worms.
“They said they had never seen anything like this. And then I could see them moving across my eye at that point, too. There were so many.”
— Cary Sports Medicine (@CarySportsMed) February 13, 2018
She went to a local doctor and an ophthalmologist in Alaska who were puzzled by the worms. When she returned to Oregon, she went directly from the plane to the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland for a consultation.
Doctors sent samples of the worms to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and tried to get a handle on Beckley’s situation, but they had never encountered this situation before. And the eye flushes they had Beckley do were ineffective.
Not surprisingly, the worms grossed out Beckley and distressed her. So, she coped by making jokes about the situation.
“They were trying to figure out what to do because there was no road map, no protocol for this … I tried not go to the darkest place, like, are these worms going to paralyze my face or infect my brain or impact my vision? … I was definitely in distress, for sure, but I also started making jokes, because I had to, to deal with it. It’s so gross to think about, but it was happening to me.”
CNN reports that the Parasite Diagnostics and Biology Laboratory at the CDC discovered that the parasites that were in Beckley’s eye, Thelazia gulosa, only infect cattle. The parasite “has never before been seen in a human eye.”
— Diversty News (@diverstynews) February 13, 2018
On Monday, the CDC published a case study on Beckley’s medical issue. Richard Bradbury, the lead author of the case report, told CNN:
“This is only the 11th time a person has been infected by eye worms in North America. But what was really exciting it that it is a new species that has never infected people before. It’s a cattle worm that somehow jumped into a human.”
The researcher explained that Beckley caught the parasite before she even left on her Alaska trip. Since she grew up on a ranch, she was in constant contact with cattle and horses.
CNN reports that parasitic worms are often found in the eyes of dogs, cats, farm animals, foxes, and wolves. This occurs when “face flies” insert their larvae into the tears of the animals. The larvae live off of the proteins in the tears, grow and “reproduce between the eye and the eyelid.”
“[T]hrough our work, we were able to understand that a brand-new species can now infect people who are around cattle.”
Beckley told CNN that she’s sharing her story because she hopes to help anyone else who may find themselves in the same situation:
“Part of the reason I’m speaking out is that I had wished I could find one article or source that would reassure me this happened to someone else and they are fine. [I]f this does happen again, I’m hoping my story will be out there for the next person to find.”
In all, Beckley found 14 worms in her left eye but stopped finding worms 20 days after she found the first one. Luckily, her eyes are in good shape now, and her eyesight won’t be affected long term by the parasites.