You do not become a medical curiosity every day. However, this happened to Dianne Travers-Gustafson, a retired medical anthropologist and health researcher from Nebraska. In February 2018, her eyes had the misfortune of being attacked by a certain type of parasitic roundworms spread by face flies. She was probably the victim of the parasite as she walked along the California Carmel Valley.
The incident "coincidence" made her the second human host of bovine eye worm ever documented . Travers-Gustafson, a thoroughly scientific collaborator, co-authored a report on her peculiar case, which was published in October. Gizmodo turned to Travers Gustafson to tell more about her shattering experiences, why she felt the need to publicize it and whether she is now a fan of goggles. The following discussion has been revised and condensed for the sake of clarity.
"What I saw were three small, glittering, translucent things that moved across my eye."
Gizmodo: Can you guide us through the flying experience? Did you probably face these worms?
Travers-Gustafson: Well, I do not think I would call it flying.
[My husband and I] are regular trail runners. We ran at least a couple of times a week, and this was a track we walked endlessly. It's a very steep path with these little hairpin bends so you can really see what lies ahead when you've made the turn. But in that particular round we knew there was a rattlesnake there. And I watched the ground and tried to avoid it. So when I passed the part where the snake was, I looked up and was on my way to a so-called flying cloud.
We live on a farm, and we had cattle, so it's not that we have no flies. And over time I have had many potential hazards in agricultural ranch areas [of Nebraska]. But I have never seen anything like it. Anyway, before I knew it, I was in the middle of it. And they were in my eyes and in my mouth and it was just about getting them out and wiping them from my eyes. But I remember thinking, "Oh, I hope there's nothing in here." Because the article about the first woman in Oregon was just published and I had read it. But then that went through my head, because the chances were low. And when I got home, which was probably hours later, I watched my eyes closely. And that was it.
Gizmodo: The discovery of the eye worms occurred about a month later. When did you know that something is going on?
Travers-Gustafson: Well, I started to have more water in my eyes, which of course was just nourishment for the nematodes, so they were happy. But I wear contact lenses – daily newspapers – and sometimes there may be extra tears for contacts due to dry air or other things. So I probably discounted the early symptoms. Then I thought I should have an eyelash in it and kept trying to flush it out. Then I thought, maybe it's an ingrown eyelash. And so I took a pencil light and a magnifying mirror to look at my right eye. And what I saw were three little glittering, translucent things that moved over my eye.
Gizmodo: How did it feel to see these little worms in your eye?
Travers -Gustafson: My professional field of research has been public health, which I have practiced over the years. My first real thought was: "Wow, fascinating. That is interesting. What on earth is going on here? "One second later, I said," Huh, I'm a host. "You know, in the field of public health we use the epidemiological triangle of hosts, environment and vectors. The flies are the vector in this case. So I'm a host – I'm a host to some kind of roundworm. And then I thought, I want her out of there!
So I tried to flush them out and I tell you, these little guys are hanging on to your eyeball. I mean, they're in tears, but they'll hide when they feel something is coming after them.
Gizmodo: They finally got all four worms from both eyes, both for themselves and with the help of an ophthalmologist, without permanent bodily injury. But when did you really feel safe?
Travers-Gustafson: Well, I'm still very sensitive to sensations in my eyes. But finally it was, okay, it's done because her reproductive cycle is about three to four weeks. As I passed that point, I knew I was clear.
Gizmodo: The Other Unusual The aspect here is that patients usually do not co-author their own case reports. Obviously you are already a scientist, but why did you want to speak publicly about your experiences?
Travers-Gustafson: Well, because I am in public health. And people need to know what is changing in our healthcare market. We have these emerging diseases, with all these changes in ecology around the world. And in terms of zoonoses [diseases spread from animals to people] the things that have always been in animals, we are beginning to see a transmission to humans and also from humans to animals. We really need to track and track these things, and I'm part of that system.
But people need to understand this from an experiential perspective, not from a sensational perspective. So if they have something that feels like an eye irritation that they can not get rid of, they should go to their healthcare provider and take a look. Now it is not likely that it is a nematode, but if so, we need to know that. And they have to solve this because they can really damage the cornea and affect their eyesight. But in order for us to know what is really going on scientifically, we need to have that data.
I think the other thing is that a person telling their story reduces their awareness of it. I want everyone to feel that these things happen in life. And we have to know more about it. But you are also not exposed to high risk. Most people do not live on a ranch or a farm. And though I'm constantly exposed to the cattle, I never had a problem until I saw this fly cloud.
Gizmodo: They travel regularly to the same area. Will you take any precautions in the future? And what would you recommend to others to escape your fate?
Travers-Gustafson: Oh, I did that right after it happened. I got these fitted sports sunglasses and do not go trail running without them. That is, when people ask me about it, I tell them that these glasses are the best physical precaution. But you also have to pay attention to these rattlesnakes. And if there is a flying cloud, make sure you do not hit the fly cloud.
Again, this is unlikely. I'm 70 years old and have been running for ages, and that was the first time I ever saw such a flying cloud. On the other hand, these clouds may be something that occurs more and more frequently. So we really need to track these flies, and the cattle must be watched and treated more closely.