Abby Beckley is not a squeamish woman.
The 26-year-old rides horses in Oregon and fishes in Alaska. So, when she first noticed an irritation in her left eye, she didn’t think much of it.
It wasn’t until she dug in that she realized what was in her eye wasn’t just an eyelash.
“I just pulled my hand back and stared at it in shock and was like, ‘oh my god, that’s a worm!'” Beckley told IFLScience.
A half-inch worm, to be exact.
“[I was concerned] that it would affect my vision, paralyze my face, or get into my brain somehow,” she said. She was sure someone else had experienced a similar intruder and quickly turned to the Internet.
“No one had. That scared me,” said Beckley.
She went to an optometrist who plucked out three additional small, translucent worms and sent them to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It didn’t end there.
Beckley pulled a total of 14 worms from her eye for nearly three weeks.
“I was able to access the logical part of my brain to keep me grounded through this whole thing,” she said. “I’m not saying I didn’t have total moments of frustration and fear, though.”
Three expert morphologists observed the specimen tediously under a microscope after its preservation in formalin made DNA and molecular analysis impossible.
Medical parasitologist Richard Bradbury told CNN he identified the species as Thelazia gulosa ( cattle eyeworm) after he recalled it was described in a 1928 journal.
It led to a new discovery.
This is the first record of the creepy crawly in humans, and it means Americans may be more vulnerable than previously believed.
Eyeworms infect a variety of animals – from livestock to household pets – but human hosts are rare. Flies ingest worm larvae, land on an animal’s eye, and feed on tears and other savory juices. Here they deposit the larvae onto the eye, which then grow to adulthood.
You know, normal things.
Cases of human eyeworms have been reported before. In Asia and Europe, dogs and livestock can transmit Thelazia callipaeda to people. Ten cases of Thelazia californiensis have been reported in the US. In both cases, it’s typically children and the elderly that are infected as they have a harder time keeping flies out of their eyes.
The worms cause inflammation and irritation in the infected eye, but symptoms often go away once the parasite is removed. In severe cases, worms can scar the cornea and even cause blindness.
Beckley didn’t suffer any long-term symptoms, but she hopes her story might help someone in the future.
“If this ever happens again, I want someone to know that it happened to me and I’m okay,” she said.
“I have to keep looking forward.”