A parasite ate my face

Published Mar 7, 2012


Daily Mail


When Adam Spencer’s girlfriend accepted his marriage proposal as they travelled through South America, the couple could begin thinking of a happy life together.

But their dream trip soon turned into a nightmare when a scab began developing on the 23-year-old’s face.

The disfiguring, pus-filled wound soon spread over his cheek, and rather than looking forward to the future, Spencer was left fearing for his life as he learnt that he was being devoured by a flesh-eating parasite – which could potentially kill him.

Spencer and his girlfriend Shalynn Pack, from Veneta, Oregon, were in the middle of a six-month trip across South America when they got engaged at the top of the Inca Trail on Machu Picchu in Peru.

It was after two romantic months hiking and bird-watching in the Amazon that Spencer noticed a spot on his face as they crossed the Bolivian salt flats.

“It was almost hardened, a scab,” said Spencer, but the couple dismissed it as nothing serious. However, the spot grew in size and turned red. Soon pus began weeping from the open sore.

Spencer got antibiotics from a local doctor and hoped the mysterious infection would clear up. Instead, after a night partying in Bolivia, he woke up to find the spot had erupted. “It was the size of a nickel,” he said. “It was indented into my face and looked raw.”

A worried Pack realised her fiancé’s wound would need more than antibiotics to heal.

He was bandaged and given a shot, pills and ointment by a clinic – but when the horrified couple looked at their holiday snaps, they noticed that his face was becoming more and more swollen.

On returning home to Oregon, Spencer saw his GP, Stephan Ames, of the Thurston Medical Clinic in Springfield.

Dr Ames said: “Adam came in with a wound on the right side of his face. It was firm, but soft and mushy on the inside.

“I was concerned it was a staph infection (caused by staphylococcus bacteria), which can infect multiple organs and could cause him to die.”

Instead of planning his wedding with friends and family, Spencer was now dealing with a potentially fatal illness. He took penicillin for a week, to no effect. Tests showed no evidence of a staph infection, and the wound kept growing. Pack said: “We didn’t know when it was going to stop. It was encroaching his eye, it was pretty frightening.”

Having lunch the day before a specialist appointment, Spencer found he couldn’t swallow and his mouth felt raw, like sandpaper. His girlfriend looked into his mouth with a torch and saw large white lumps, and the back of his throat looked malformed. “It was terrifying,” she said. Spencer’s wound grew to about 5cm across.

Specialist Dr William Muth, of the Samaritan Infectious Disease clinic in Corvallis, realised the wound could be mucocutaneous leishmaniasis, caused by the organism leishmania, a single-cell parasite. His immune cells were trying try to fight the disease, but the parasite was simply feeding off them and multiplying – causing hideous sores.

The doctor found a swollen lymph node on the side of Spencer’s neck, indicating the infection was spreading, and was in danger of travelling to his nose and eyes – and could even kill him.

The disfiguring wound grew until it covered his cheek. Pack said: “It was oozing constantly – it affected every part of his life. He couldn’t eat, he couldn’t breathe without pain.”

When Pack saw that two lesions had sprung up on his back, she knew the infection “had become systemic”. “It was a really hard time,” she said.

Spencer feared he would lose the ability to speak as well. “This parasite had taken my dreams and stomped on them,” he said.

Finally, after a 21-day treatment, the parasite – which had been transmitted into his skin by a tiny sandfly bite on the Amazon – finally went away, but Spencer still bears a scar.

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