Woman's contact lens care leads to parasitic eye infection

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LANSING, Mich. (WILX) -- "I would not wish this disease on anybody."

Traci Lawson's nightmare started with an eye infection in September 2017.

She was diagnosed and treated for pinkeye, but two weeks later, her left eye suddenly became worse.

"The next morning, my eye was protruding out of my face and very swollen, extremely, extremely sensitive to the light," Lawson said. "We had to darken all the windows in the house."

After going to six doctors in a week, Lawson was finally sent to a cornea specialist at the University of Michigan, where she was diagnosed with Acanthamoeba keratitis: a parasite.

"It can affect the eye by leading to an eye infection in the cornea, which is the front part of the eye," said Dr. Shahzad Mian, cornea specialist at the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center.

The parasite lives off your cornea, eating away at your eye all day long.

"It was like a hot poker in your eye. It didn't ever let up; it was constant agony."

She was even at risk of losing her eyesight.

"To see your loved one just reeling in pain, 24 hours a day and it goes on and on for weeks, you don't know what to do," her husband, Jaime Lawson, said.

"Patients who wear contacts are at increased risk for having infection with Acanthamoeba," Mian said.

Lawson was a long-time contact lens wearer.

"I never even thought twice about it. I would dump the old contact solution and I would rinse out my case before putting the new one in. And that's where the acanthamoeba comes from," she said.

"If you don't clean your contact lenses properly, if you go swimming in a lake or fresh water where the parasite may be present, it increases your risks for getting infections associated with it," Mian said.

Before her symptoms, Lawson also went on vacation in northern Michigan.

"We went to a beach house for the week and we swam," she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that, in the United States, an estimated 85% of cases occur in contact lens wearers. The risk is about one in 20,000 patients who wear contact lenses, so it's not common.

It is a very serious infection and difficult to treat.

Lawson started treatment right away with antibiotic eye drops.

Eleven months after her diagnosis, the acanthamoeba had been killed but she still couldn't see because of scar tissue. She got a cornea transplant but, unfortunately, it never attached.

She got her second transplant in January, when they put 16 stitches in her eye.

"I still have to take a drop every day for four times a day called Prednisolone. It's a steroid drop for my eye just to lessen my chance of rejection," Lawson said.

She said she can see but not perfectly and there's still a risk her body will reject the new transplant.

"She has a good prognosis for having long-term recovery of vision," Mian said.

Her husband is proud of her for staying strong through it all.

"She's very, very strong. A lot of people would've given up. They would've probably laid in a dark for the rest of her life. She just fights, fights, fights to get back on her feet," he said.

Traci Lawson learned an important lesson from this ordeal.

"Take care of your eyes because you don't know how important they are to you until they're gone."

To protect yourself from getting the parasitic eye infection, avoid showering or swimming in a lake or river with your contact lenses in, make sure you replace your lenses and lens case regularly and don't use saline drops or tap water to clean or store your lenses.