Early last year, Rachel Palma of Middleton, New York found herself living inside of a horror movie. At night, she experienced vivid, terrifying nightmares. Nightmares that did not end when she woke the next morning. She was tormented by hallucinations and insomnia. She lost control of her limbs — often dropping objects she held in her right hand. Her language skills became impaired. She had a hard time thinking of the right words during conversations and at times made alarming phone calls to her family that she had no memory of making.
Several visits to the urgent care offered no insight into the mysterious condition that had overtaken her life.
“My episodes were getting more and more bizarre,” Palma told TODAY during a recent interview. “There were days that I didn’t know where I was.”
Finally, doctors discovered a lesion on the left side of Palma’s brain during an MRI Scan. It was their first clue into what was causing her strange symptoms.
Initially, doctors feared that it might be cancer. They counseled Palma and her family to prepare them for the worst. If it was a malignant tumor that would mean surgery, chemotherapy and possibly radiation treatment.
Palma remained optimistic. When she heard the diagnosis, Palma recalled, “I never really allowed myself to think it was cancer.”
As it turns out, she was right.
When surgeons opened up Palma’s skull they expected to see the soft, spread-out tissue of a typical tumor, but what they discovered was very different. It was “this very firm, very well encapsulated thing,” Dr. Jonathan Rasouli, one of the neurosurgeons who performed the surgery, recalled. “It looked like a quail egg.”
When they cut open that hard mass, what they found was terrifying. It was a baby tapeworm.
While discovering a tapeworm in someone’s brain might sound like the strange stuff of nightmares, it is actually a condition known as Neurocysticercosis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Neurocysticercosis is contracted “by swallowing microscopic eggs passed in the feces of a person who has an intestinal pork tapeworm.” People do not get Neurocysticercosis by ingesting undercooked pork. Rather, the condition most often arises when someone who has an intestinal tapeworm infection passes the tapeworm eggs in their feces and then prepares food without washing their hands.
While the disease is uncommon in the United States, nearly 1000 people are hospitalized with the condition every year in this country.
Palma told TODAY that she doesn’t want to speculate about how she contracted the parasite. At first, the thought of a parasite in her brain was “gross,” but once she realized that meant that it wasn’t cancer she was relieved.
The medical team that performed Palma’s surgery shared her enthusiasm. They cheered with relief when they discovered the parasite.
“She had a single parasite in her head that we were able to take out — we were very happy,” Dr. Rasouli told Today, “…It was one of those rare situations where you see a parasite and you’re like, wow this is great!”
Palma’s symptoms have all cleared up since the surgery, and a recent brain scan seems to show she is in the clear.