John Hollenhorst ReportingImagine how you'd feel if a doctor told you there were millions of worms living and feeding inside your body. That's exactly what happened to a Utah woman. She's one of only handful of people ever known to have survived such a horrendous attack by parasites.
Charmaine Atwell: “I don’t want anyone in this world to go through what I went through.”
The ordeal that brought her to this began on Thanksgiving Day. She began feeling intense pains that took her in and out of doctors' offices and hospitals.
Charmaine Atwell: “And they cut me open and they still had no idea what it was.”
Dr. Bruce Hathaway finally figured it out. He and a medical student put her sputum under a microscope. They spotted one worm, then hundreds.
Dr. Bruce Hathaway, Infectious Disease Specialist: “It’s a nematode worm, it’s a roundworm. They’re very, very small. You need a microscope to see them.”
Charmaine Atwell: “I was afraid. I felt like an alien.”
The tiny worms live in the soil in warm, wet countries. They can burrow into a person's bare foot and live parasitically inside their bodies. It's unheard of in Utah.
Dr. Bruce Hathaway: “I was astounded. I was very fearful that we had to get going right away.”
Atwell had the rarest, most feared variation, a runaway "hyper-infection," millions of worms taking over every organ in her body. Atwell was vulnerable because, as a lupus sufferer, she'd been taking a drug that weakens immunity.
Dr. Bruce Hathaway: “It can be devastating and it lets the parasite go wild.”
Charmaine Atwell: “I didn’t know if I was going to live. I didn’t know if I was going to die.”
Hathaway says only 63 such cases have been documented, and the fatality rate is 90 percent. Atwell barely survived thanks to massive doses of anti-parasite drugs.
But did the tropical worms come from Utah's dry soil?
Charmaine Atwell: “I would bet my right arm on it, that this is where I got it.”
Hathaway believes it's more likely she carried the worms in a dormant version for years, from other wetter places she lived previously.
Dr. Bruce Hathaway: “I’m pretty confident that Charmaine got it in either Oklahoma or Arkansas.”
Sadly there's no guarantee the worms are completely gone. Dr. Hathaway has also found a second species of parasite in her body that he's still trying to identify.