Lizzie Caine stood dejectedly in the doorway of her apartment, breathing in the stale air of rooms that had been shut up for four weeks. She already missed the tropical sun beating on her bare skin, the kiss of cool water in the clear island lagoons, falling asleep to the ocean’s lullaby, protected from night insects by a fairy-tale canopy of fine white mesh.
Five minutes home, and her holiday already felt like a dream.
Lizzie lugged her suitcase through to the living room and dumped it on the carpet. She really didn’t feel like unpacking after hours of travel, her eyes felt gritty with fatigue and she decided the only unpacking she was going to be doing was a bottle of wine into a very large glass.
One glass of wine later, Lizzie was passed out in front of the television, an overhyped movie starring overhyped actors playing to an unconscious audience.
At some point after midnight, she sleepwalked her way to bed and settled between the musty sheets. Her dreams turned the sound of traffic into ocean waves and she smiled gently in her sleep.
Daylight woke Lizzie, and she lay for a while watching dust motes dancing in the beams of sunlight. Her eyes still felt gritty, and she wondered if she still had some unexpired eye drops in the bathroom cabinet.
She walked stiffly to the bathroom, shedding yesterday’s clothes as she went. Luckily, she had some eye drops that were only a week out of date. She turned the shower on and used the eye drops while she waited for the water to heat up. She grimaced at the sting of the drops and blinked rapidly, stepping under the hot spray and relishing the feel of yesterday’s grime sluicing off her body. She belatedly wished she had remembered to retrieve her toiletries from the suitcase that was still sitting in the living room, but she did the best she could, promising herself a bath later. With candles and wine. Mmmm.
Her eyes still felt irritated by the time she got out of the shower, and she rubbed them in frustration. Maybe it was an eyelash or something.
She put on the bright bathroom heat lights and leaned in to examine her eye in the mirror. There! A thin brown fibre causing all that trouble. Lizzie carefully swept her finger along her eyeball, hoping to sweep out the offending thread. Oh God, that thread did not just move!
Lizzie felt a little faint, and sat on the edge of the bathtub. She blinked, that was all. She blinked and it made the thread move. She breathed deeply, and repeated her mantra a few times. She blinked, just blinked. That was all.
Another tentative trip to the bathroom mirror. Pried the eyelids open as far as they would go. Lean in, go on take a good look. Nothing there. Nothing …
Lizzie gasped as the brown thread wriggled across the white of her eye before disappearing under her eyelid.
Her face went numb and she could feel herself greying out. She sat on the edge of the bathtub again and tried to calm herself, her breath jerking in and out in horror and disbelief. Maybe she was dreaming! It was just a horrible, horrible dream.
Wake up now. Please …
Lizzie opened her eyes and faced the awful truth. She was awake, and she had a worm in her eye.
The doctor propped Lizzie’s eyelid open in the dim room, then flashed a light in her eye, shaking his head at the half dozen small brown worms that darted around trying to hide from the sudden glare. He turned the light out and released Lizzie’s eyelid. He waited a minute before performing the same procedure on the other eye with the same result. This time, he captured one of the writhing worms on a cotton bud before releasing the eyelid. He quickly transferred the worm into a jar, poured sterile solution over it and closed the lid.
The worm wriggled briefly before lying still, floating in the clear liquid. Lizzie stared at the creature in horror, unable to comprehend that it had come out of her eye. She felt a little faint, and could feel a cold greasy sweat breaking out on her forehead. She bent forward and breathed deeply while the doctor dabbed the back of her neck with a cool cloth.
“Okay, Lizzie. I know it’s upsetting, but I’m sure we can fix this. I’ll have to send the sample to the lab for identification, but in the meantime I’m going to prescribe you some eye drops and tablets that should help, and I want you to make an appointment with Dr Keyes. He’s one of the best eye surgeons around.” He scribbled on his prescription pad and handed it to Lizzie. “I know it’s hard, but please try not to panic too much.”
Easier said than done, Lizzie thought dismally as she stared at the meaningless scrawl on the prescription page. She numbly took the contact details for Dr Keyes, and left the surgery in a daze.
Half an hour later, she left the chemist with her drugs in a small paper bag. Another half hour later saw her leave the bottle shop with wine. Plenty of wine.
Dr Keyes peered into Lizzie’s eyes through the light mounted magnifier. “Fascinating!” he exclaimed. “I’ve been practising for over twenty years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Great, thought Lizzie. Just what I wanted to hear.
The ophthalmologist rolled his chair back to his desk and studied the lab file. “This nasty little bugger hails from tropical climates,” he paused and looked at Lizzie. “I understand you were holidaying recently in the tropics?” Lizzie nodded, and he continued. “These are the larvae of a nematode worm. There are two ways you could have ended up with them in your eyes. Either they were in the water, or they could have been passed on through flies as part of their lifecycle. The fly lands near your eye to drink the moisture, and then squirts out the larvae while they’re there. Are you feeling okay, dear? You look a little pale.”
Lizzie, in fact, was doing her best not to vomit all over Dr Keyes’s office. She breathed deeply and tried not to think about flies squirting worm larvae in her eyes while drinking her tears.
She leaned forward and breathed deeply, then had a sip of water, almost gagging at the thought of what might be swimming in there.
“So what happens now? Can you remove these things?” she felt suddenly near to tears.
“Yes, of course.” Dr Keyes thought for a moment. “Have you been experiencing any other pain apart from the obvious and understandable discomfort?”
Lizzie nodded. “Yes, I’ve been getting headaches. I figured it was just stress, but it feels like it’s coming from behind my eyes. And there’s kind of this weird pressure sometimes.”
Dr Keyes nodded. “Okay, I don’t want to alarm you, but some of the larvae may have migrated to the back of your eyeballs. We’ll need to run an ultrasound over your eyes and see what’s going on in there. Sooner rather than later, obviously. Are you free now?”
Lizzie nodded, numb with shock. “Of course. What happens if these things are behind my eyes?”
The ophthalmologist smiled and patted her on the knee. “It will be fine, we’ll book you in for surgery and get rid of them for you.”
“Uh huh. And what does this surgery involve?”
“It’s quite a simple procedure. We remove the eyeball with the optic nerve still attached, clean out the obstruction, and just pop that sucker straight back in. Hehehe.”
Lizzie swallowed and nodded, still feeling a little queasy. She really didn’t have a choice.
Dr Keyes ran a small, hand-held ultrasound device over Lizzie’s closed eyelids, one at a time. The cool gel felt soothing on her eyes.
The ophthalmologist peered at the real-time results on the screen beside him, shaking his head and making small sounds of dismay. Lizzie wished he would just shut up and give her the bad news.
Be careful what you wish for, she thought dismally as Dr Keyes sat back and gravely informed her that she had a suspicious mass behind each eyeball. “It’s not clear what they are,” she heard him say through the cold mists of her panic. “We’ll have to … umm … take a look behind your eyes, identify what’s going on, and remove whatever it is. It may be some sort of egg sac, perhaps.” He looked concerned as Lizzie slowly folded forward, her breath panting in and out. He slid his desk-bin under her just in time as she retched up brown bile and half-digested coffee and toast.
“I think we’d better schedule you in for this afternoon,” Dr Keyes applied a cold compress to the back of Lizzie’s neck as she hunched miserably in her chair. “We don’t want these buggers eating … I mean damaging your … oh never mind.”
That afternoon found Lizzie lying on her back in a drugged stupor. Dr Keyes had delivered the terrifying news that, although Lizzie would be heavily sedated, the surgical team needed her to be conscious during the procedure. Right now, that fear seemed so very far away, and she giggled as Dr Keyes’s face floated like a balloon in her vision. His blue hat and matching face mask struck her as hilarious, and she grinned up at him. She saw his face mask writhe as he presumably grinned back.
“Now, Lizzie, I need you to relax. We need to immobilise you, and then we’re going to start the procedure. It shouldn’t hurt, but it may feel … unpleasant.” Lizzie nodded dreamily as the team strapped her arms and legs to the operating table then secured her head with a brace and belts. Lizzie was vaguely aware that her nose itched. Bother.
Dr Keyes moved behind Lizzie’s head and stood for a moment to centre himself before proceeding. The eyes were a continuing source of amazement for him, and he couldn’t wait to pop them out and peek behind the curtain.
The nurse handed him two rubber spoon shaped devices, and he gently settled them on either side of Lizzie’s right eyeball then applied increasing pressure until the eyeball slid out of the socket with a quiet sucking noise.
The doctor focussed the operating light into the socket, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. An elongated brown mass lay exposed and pulsing in the light. Was it an egg sac?
He gently slid a small spatula under the glistening mass, then watched in appalled horror as it separated into a writhing explosion of thin worms that disappeared swiftly into the sinuses and cavities towards Lizzie’s brain.