“I looked at it, and it was moving,” recalled 28-year-old Abby Beckley of Grants Pass, Oregon. “And then it died within about five seconds.”
Now, imagine doing that not once but 14 times.
“This is only the 11th time a person has been infected by eye worms in North America, ” explained lead author Richard Bradbury, who is the team lead for the CDC’s Parasite Diagnostics and Biology Laboratory. “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.”
A summer adventure
Growing up on a ranch in Brookings, Oregon, surrounded by cattle and horses, Beckley loved the outdoors. She also had a burning desire to travel. So, in July 2016, she jumped at a chance to combine the two by working on a commercial salmon fishing boat in Craig, Alaska. It was only a couple of weeks into the job that the symptoms started.
She’d been suffering for five days when the ship finally returned to port. Beckley found a good mirror and looked closely into her eye, never expecting what she would find.
“I pulled down the bottom of my eye and noticed that my skin looked weird there,” Beckley said. “So I put my fingers in with a sort of a plucking motion, and a worm came out!
“I was just in shock,” she said. “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!’ “
“They said they had never seen anything like this,” Beckley said, adding that during that time, she pulled another four worms from her eye. “And then I could see them moving across my eye at that point, too. There were so many.”
Worried family and friends encouraged her to return home and set up an appointment at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. She went directly there from the airport.
“There were several doctors examining my eye, and at first, they were a bit skeptical, because who comes in and claims they have a worm in their eye?” Beckley remembered. “I am thinking to myself, ‘Worms, please show up,’ because sometimes they would go behind my eye and under the eyelid, and you couldn’t see or feel them anymore.”
Luckily, she says, after a half-hour, the worms made an appearance.
“I felt one squiggle across my eye, and I told the doctors, ‘You need to look right now!’ ” Beckley said. “I’ll never forget the expression on their faces as they saw it move across my eye.”