Ben Taylor contracted Loa loa worms and painted them before he even knew what was happening.
This is Ben Taylor, an artist, avid traveler, and someone who’s witnessed a worm wiggling around in his own eye.
Taylor, who is based in the UK, is a frequent traveler to Gabon in Central Africa. On one particular trip in 2013, he spent several weeks deep in the forest with the Indigenous population and, while he didn’t know it at the time, that’s where the trouble started.
It was six months later when things started getting weird. At first, it was a strange feeling in his forehead, like a muscle snapping. Then there was a lump, followed by more, and some strange swelling. Over the next year, those symptoms were joined by joint pain, abscesses, and gut issues. Even his usually happy-go-lucky demeanor had plummeted. Both Taylor and doctors were perplexed.
Then, a new symptom: blinding pain in his eye, accompanied with photosensitivity.
“I remember going and looking in the mirror and there was a whitish yellow lump on the outside corner of the white of my eye,” Taylor told BuzzFeed News.
He took to Google and in what would become a moment of irony, scrolled past the Loa loa worm, feeling thankful at least he didn’t have that.
He went back to the mirror, and this time the lump was gone, but a curved line at the bottom of his eye had appeared.
“This time when I touched this object, it wiggled.”
A speedy trip to the hospital confirmed his diagnosis — Taylor had indeed been infected by Loa loa worms, and they were having a party in his eye.
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Doctors pulled out a 3.5-centimeter worm — that’s over an inch long — from Taylor’s eye, and it “was wiggling for about a minute before it died,” he said.
Loa loa worms cause loiasis, or African eye worm, according to the CDC. They pass to humans through a bite from a deer fly in West and Central Africa, and people who have them may have no symptoms for many months after they are infected.
They aren’t contagious — you can’t pass them from person to person — but they can eventually cause symptoms like itching, muscle and joint pain, and fatigue. It’s also possible to see them wiggling around under the skin or in the eye. About 3 to 13 million people worldwide may have loiasis.
Once diagnosed, surgery can remove any obvious worms and medication is used to kill any that remain.
“I remember thinking, Thank goodness that’s over with,” said Taylor.
It wasn’t, of course, because where there’s one worm there are bound to be more. He ended up staying for a week at the London School for Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and it was discovered he was also harboring hookworms and threadworms, two other types of wormy parasites, which can be transmitted via infected soil.
But something hauntingly beautiful also came out of it.
When his symptoms were at their worst but before he had a real diagnosis, Taylor went to his studio. He didn’t have a plan; he just started an abstract piece and something strange happened all on its own.
“For some reason, I just felt drawn to spend hour upon hour working on this painting with intricate wormlike patterns,” said Taylor.
“I couldn’t understand why I felt compelled to do this piece,” he said.
He decided the piece was a failure and stashed it away. At this point, he had no idea a bunch of worms had taken up residence in his body.
Months later, after his diagnosis and treatment, he found it again, and this time it made sense.
“That painting seems to be influenced by the parasites I was carrying around inside me,” he said. He took his new perspective and reworked the piece into a representation of what he’d been through with his eye health.
He posted it online and that’s how the folks at the CDC found it. It’s now on the cover of the latest issue of a medical journal titled Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Taylor said he just heard from the CDC again, saying how pleased they were that people like the cover. He’s also had the doctors who treated him express interest in the print.
“It’s a bit of a weird painting, not everyone’s cup of tea, but my goodness — medical people, they love it,” said Taylor.
Taylor has a lot of other cool paintings you can check out.