Feeling something unusual in your eye is not normally an emergency situation, but what if that something is moving? Well, Oregon woman Abby Beckley was shocked after discovering what she believed to be a stray lash in her left eye was actually a parasitic worm. And the events that followed would leave doctors baffled.
Beckley, 26, was most definitely the outdoors type. Her passion for pursuits including horseback riding and fishing complimented a can-do attitude and thirst for adventure. She’d also experienced living on a South Oregon cattle ranch and dreamed about working abroad.
So when she was offered work as a deck hand on a fishing boat in Southeast Alaska during the summer of 2016, Beckley found it impossible to refuse. However, during her second week in the new role, Beckley began to suffer discomfort in her left eye.
The irritation caused her eyelid to droop and her eye to become red and tingly. Beckley assumed that a loose lash had become lodged in her eye but became increasingly concerned when she started having migraines.
In an interview with National Geographic in February 2018, she explained, “It felt like when an eyelash is poking you.” The symptoms persisted as she continued to work at sea. After five days of discomfort, though, Beckley had had enough. And as a result, she decided that she was going to remove whatever was causing her such distress.
“So one morning, I woke up and I was like, ‘If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to get whatever the heck is in my eye out of there,’” she recalled. Staring at her reflection in the mirror, the young woman began tugging at the skin below her eye.
But what she found was alarming. “I pulled down the bottom of my eye and noticed that my skin looked weird there,” she told CNN. Pinching the inflamed skin under her eyeball, Beckley used two fingers to prize out what was jammed underneath.
To her horror, she removed a clear white worm, about half an inch in length and the same width as a strand of hair. It wriggled around for a few moments before dying on her index finger. “I was honestly in shock, in actual disbelief… I couldn’t believe what I had just seen,” she told People magazine in February 2018.
Following her stomach-churning discovery, Beckley turned to a co-worker for help. Failing to find any information online, the two friends assumed that the slimy critter was a salmon worm. But after a doctor in Craig, Alaska, reacted with shock when Beckley showed him three more worms that she’d taken from here eye, she was no longer sure.
When she went home to Oregon, Beckley received further medical advice. Some of the doctors whom she consulted were initially skeptical of her story. But when they witnessed a worm crawling over Beckley’s eyeball, they had no choice but to believe her.
“I could feel them at that point, I felt one come to the surface of my eye, and I was like, ‘Oh my God! You need to look!’” Beckley told People. “They looked, and they were just stunned.” During the next three weeks, a total of 14 worms were pulled from the unlikely host’s left eye.
The usually active Beckley found the experience difficult and felt low emotionally during this time. She found herself wondering whether the worms would travel to her brain or even cause blindness or paralysis in her face.
None of the doctors she saw could give her firm reassurances that everything would be OK. As a result, it was a trying time, and Beckley often stayed at home, preoccupied with the critters living in her head. “It was really hard for me to do anything, because I was distracted by [the worms],” she told People. “It was like living in a nightmare, it was like, ‘When is this ever going to end?’”
Beckley was eventually diagnosed by scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with Thelazia gulosa, a species of eye worm more commonly found in cattle in the north of the U.S. It was the first known case of a human having become infected with the rare parasite.
The eye worms are carried from host to host by flies that are attracted by the tears secreted from animals such as cows, horses and dogs. Doctors told Beckley that her eye would have become infected after one such fly had vomited in it.
Moreover, these medical experts were left stunned by Beckley’s experience. Dr. Erin Bonura, assistant professor of infectious diseases at Oregon Health & Science University and part of the team that treated Beckley, told KOIN6, “We can get parasitic infection in the eye. But typically the patient has some exposure to a developing country.”
Richard Bradbury of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention led a study on Beckley’s case, and a report has since been published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. Only after referring to a 1928 German research paper could he confirm the true identity of this particular species of eye worm. Thelazia gulosa is now documented as the third type of Thelazia worm to ever be found in a human eye.
Thankfully, as soon as the final critter was removed from her eye, Beckley felt better. She made a rapid recovery and, apart from developing an understandable aversion to flies, has suffered no discernible long-term effects. One of the motivations for making her story public was to help anyone else who might go through the same ordeal in the future.
After being left in the dark from day one of her experience, Beckley hoped to ensure that nobody else had to endure the uncertainty that she did. “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,” she told CNN.
“If this does happen again, I’m hoping my story will be out there for the next person to find,” Beckley added. And Dr. Bonura certainly remains proud of her former patient, telling National Geographic, “She handled it all with remarkable grace and stride and is incredibly strong.”