A neurosurgeon in Australia has discovered a parasitic worm in the brain of a patient during an examination of troubling symptoms.
Surgeon Hari Priya Bandi used forceps to pull out the 3-inch parasite while performing a biopsy through a hole in the 64-year-old patient’s skull at Canberra Hospital last year, TIME reported on Tuesday.
The organism was the larva of an Australian native roundworm not previously known to be a human parasite, named Ophidascaris robertsi. The worms are commonly found in carpet pythons.
The worms’ eggs are commonly shed in snake droppings which are eaten by small mammals. The life cycle continues as other snakes eat the mammals.
The woman lives near a carpet python habitat and forages for native vegetation called warrigal greens to cook.
While she had no direct contact with snakes, scientists suggest that she consumed the eggs from the vegetation or her contaminated hands.
“I got a call saying: ‘We’ve got a patient with an infection problem. We’ve just removed a live worm from this patient’s brain,” Senanayake told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
The woman had been admitted to the hospital after experiencing forgetfulness and worsening depression over three months. Scans showed changes in her brain.
A year earlier, she had been admitted to her local hospital in southeast New South Wales State with symptoms including abdominal pain, diarrhea, a dry cough, and night sweats.
Senanayake said the brain biopsy was expected to reveal a cancer or an abscess.
“This patient had been treated … for what was a mystery illness that we thought ultimately was an immunological condition because we hadn’t been able to find a parasite before and then out of nowhere, this big lump appeared in the frontal part of her brain,” Senanayake said.
“Suddenly, with her (Bandi’s) forceps, she’s picking up this thing that’s wriggling. She and everyone in that operating theater were absolutely stunned,” Senanayake added.