Luis Ortiz doesn’t remember much about that fateful September day when he almost lost his life because of a "wiggling" worm in his brain.
The 26-year-old California resident was skateboarding near his parents’ home in Napa when the headaches he’d been having for several days suddenly intensified. After Ortiz returned home, he felt disoriented and began vomiting.
"That’s where it gets kind of blurry for me," he told the Napa Valley Register.
Ortiz’s mother rushed him to the hospital, but his condition steadily worsened. Ortiz fell into a coma and doctors were forced to create a small hole in his head to drain his swollen brain.
After a series of tests, the cause of the swelling was pinpointed: There was a live tapeworm larva trapped deep inside Ortiz’s brain.
"It was still wiggling and moving around," Ortiz told the Los Angeles Times.
Ortiz’s doctors at Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa said he was very lucky to have arrived at the hospital when he did. The parasite had formed in a cyst that was causing a blockage in Ortiz’s brain; another 30 minutes and "he would have been dead," Dr. Soren Singel told the Register.
Singel is the neurosurgeon who managed to successfully remove the cyst from Ortiz’s brain. It was a challenging surgery, one that a nurse at the hospital compared to "standing at the end of a 20-foot room, then having to use a straw to reach a point, or a dot, on the other side of the wall," per the Times.
Ortiz, who was released from the hospital before Halloween, said his recovery has been a difficult and long-drawn process. He has suffered some memory loss and been forced to stop attending Sacramento State University, where he was a student, and move back home with his parents. For now, he can’t drive or work.
Despite the ongoing ordeal, Ortiz said he's just grateful to be alive.
"It's probably more gratifying to me to be living, because if I would have waited a little bit longer, then I probably wouldn't be here right now," he told CBS San Francisco.
Tapeworm infections can happen when people come into contact with food, water or other surfaces contaminated with their eggs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the disease is a problem worldwide, though it's most prevalent in developing countries.
People can help prevent contamination by properly washing their hands, washing and peeling raw fruits and vegetables before eating and being careful about drinking only safe water while traveling, The Associated Press reported. Cooking meat at safe temperatures is another preventive measure.
Ortiz said he still has no idea how the tapeworm larva got into his body. His doctors speculate that he may have ingested tapeworm eggs through something he ate, and eventually the single larva made its way into his brain.
"I just couldn’t believe something like that would happen to me. I didn’t know there was a parasite in my head trying to ruin my life," Ortiz told the Register.
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