It’s a bizarre medical tale that’s far more common than anyone might think.

As reported by the Napa Valley Register Thursday, a Napa, California man named Luis Ortiz, 26, was rushed to the Queen of the Valley Medical Center’s emergency department earlier this September after experiencing severe headache, vomiting and disorientation. The culprit? A cyst containing an immature tapeworm that had somehow wedged itself into Ortiz’s brain and blocked water from flowing to the chambers of his brain. That meant the cyst acted “like a cork in a bottle,” according to Dr. Soren Singel, the neurosurgeon who treated Ortiz.

Though Ortiz soon fell into a coma after his arrival at the hospital, doctors were able to stabilize him by placing a drain in his brain. They then dove in headfirst to retrieve the pesky worm via a tiny instrument known as an endoscope that comes equipped with both a camera and a grasping apparatus. “We made a hole in skull bone over the eyebrow and drove the camera into the center of the brain and fished out the cyst and the worm,” explained Singel. “The worm was still wiggling when we pulled it out.” Ortiz was then given anti-worm medication to flush out any other unwelcome guests.

While the aftermath of the harrowing ordeal has left Ortiz, a Sacramento State student, with some lingering memory problems, he appears to be on the mend. “I was really lucky,” he told the Napa Valley Register. “They said, ‘If you came in a hour later, you wouldn’t be alive.’ I’m really thankful that the Queen isn’t too long of a drive from my parents’ house. I’m grateful for all the things the doctors and my parents have done.”

Neglected But Real

The infection that Ortiz had is known as cysticercosis (technically neurocysticercosis since it was in his brain). Despite Ortiz’s assurances that he won’t be touching pork anytime soon, cysticercosis isn’t caused by the ingestion of undercooked pork contaminated with a pork tapeworm (Taenia solium).

Instead, it’s what happens when someone swallows the parasite’s microscopic eggs through the feces of someone already infected with a tapeworm. These eggs land in the intestines and are able to migrate elsewhere in the body via the hardy cysts that form around their larval stage (Singel stated that Ortiz’s cyst could have been dormant for years). You can even give yourself cysticercosis by swallowing the eggs of your own tapeworm infection, which must be the worm equivalent of kicking you while you’re down.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, neurocysticercosis leads to the hospitalization of about 1,000 patients a year, with an average medical bill of $37,600, yet few medical professionals know much about the potentially fatal disease. That’s led the CDC to place neurocysticercosis on their list of neglected parasitic infections , a motley group containing equally disturbing ailments such as toxoplasmosis and Chagas disease.

Likely owing to the tapeworm’s greater prevalence in developing countries, cases of neurocysticercosis often occur in states such as New York, California, Texas, Oregon, and Illinois, which contain large immigrant communities.

Ortiz hopes to return to Sacramento State next semester.