My Friend George
An innocent looking mosquito bites me behind the knee. No big deal. Where I live in the tropics of Costa Rica I’m used to all kinds of creatures. Snakes, chiggers, mosquitoes, fungi are all acceptable tradeoffs for the beauty and wildness of the rainforest. I return to Florida and my job, and forget about the lesion; a small bump, out of sight, . A month passes. I begin to feel something. Not an itch, not a pain, just a light tingling. I take a look. Man, I thought that was a mosquito bite, but it’s still there. A little cysty thing. Worry flickers through my mind, but I’m too busy to dwell on it.
I’ve been going to a homeopathic doctor trying to find the source of my migraines. I’ve tried almost everything else with no success. He tests me using a weird electrical body-scanning device and can detect parasites. While lying supine on the table, something makes me ask him to check the bump on the back of my leg. He palpates, even squeezes it, then shrugs, “Just a cyst. No head. It’ll probably just dissolve. Don’t worry about it.” Okay, I won’t. It’s just that the tingling sensation is gettting more frequent and irritating.
Life goes on. I’m working with a biologist from Mote Marine Laboratories taking the mobile touch tank and aquarium to schools in the area. We exchange stories of life in the tropics. He mentions the botfly. “How gross!” he grimaces. “The egg is injected into mammals, grows into the larval stage and after about six weeks, pops out and flies away.”
“Oh yeah,” I remember. “Even humans have them. Our caretaker gets them from working around the animals. They’re really hard to get out if they’re not ready.”
Instantly a fiery rush of adrenaline washes through my body exiting through my scalp and fingertips like a bolt of lightening. Oh my God! Could that be what’s in me? My heart races, sweat breaks out on my upper lip. I’m too shocked and embarrassed to bring it up or check it out in front of him. I wait endlessly to get home, race to a well-lighted window, and twist my body around to get a really good look at the cyst. A little hole has appeared in the center. While I scrutinize it, a tiny tube pokes out of the hole and retreats. I scream, aghast. It’s the breathing spiracle of the botfly larva. A loathsome creature is living inside me and eating my flesh! This is a horror film come true .
My subconscious would not let me consider the possibility of a maggot subsisting
on my tender tissue for the last month. Now I have no choice but to deal. One little larva
parasitizing my gigantic body has not killed me and is not going to, but the thought of it might make me go insane. I’ve got to stop thinking of this subjectively. I have choices. I can run around screaming and tearing at my flesh like in the movies, or I can look at a logical method of removal. Short of waiting for nature to take its course--at least another two weeks, which I really can’t abide--what other options do I have?
I can try pulling it out. I call my scientist friends hoping they’ll be more interested than disgusted by the problem. They’re excited by the challenge. We set up an operating stage on the floor of the dining room with bright lights, alcohol, tweezers and a magnifying glass.
I lie on my stomach. “I can’t see.”
Candy, holding the glass, says “Sorry, you can’t. You have to be completely still or we’ll never be able to get it.”
“Ready?” asks Mara, the invertebrate specialist with the tweezers.
“Ready.” I grit my teeth, clench my jaw.
Each time the tube emerges Mara grabs it, but when she pulls she gets no purchase. “Damn. It won’t work. Something’s holding it.” We give up. Though
disappointed I’m still not ready for the knife. I can turn this into a hands-on, chance-of-a-lifetime science experiment. I need to research.
This variety of botfly (Dermatobia hominis) uses not only the human species as a host, but birds and mammals, as well. If there are enough of the larvae they can actually kill the host, but usually the relationship is one-on-one and more cooperative than parasitic. They just need room and board until they’re ready to spread their wings and fly away. As mine grows the tingling feeling I experience becomes a biting one. It usually happens in bed and feels like tiny hot needles searing me from the inside out.
What about infection? Not to worry. Each botfly maggot secretes an antibiotic into its hiding place to prevent other microscopic organisms from ruining dinner. They carry their own antiseptic, but no pain killer or tranquilizer.
I find out that there was no way my fat hairy grub was going to squeeze through that tiny breathing hole. The larva has two anal hooks that hold it securely in position. If it is pulled on, the hooks sink deeper into the flesh as its survival instinct kicks in.
In the campo’(countryside) where the torsalo’(botfly) still flourishes, there are several recommended ways of extracting them. The meat treatment involves placing a thick slab of raw meat over the hole, effectively cutting off the air from the breathing spiracle and causing the larva to vacate its den and burrow up through the meat in search of air. I can’t see strapping a piece of raw beef to my leg in the general course of my day, so I choose the less primitive form of this cure, using Vaseline as an alternative. It seems my little fella knows how to hold his breath. Another failure.
Another week passes. I am meeting my daughter in Martha’s Vineyard for a vacation. She’ll know what to do. She’s lived in the Costa Rican rainforest for several years. Though the feeding is becoming more intense, like getting a mini tattoo from the inside, I decide I can wait a little longer.
Guiselle knows another method of extraction also learned from the caretaker. This time I stand up. She lights a long sturdy kitchen match, throws it into a narrow glass and suctions it quickly onto my leg. The oxygen-eating flame is supposed to form a vacuum in the glass causing the maggot to pop right out. But again no luck This guy hangs tough.
I’m finally getting used to my little hanger-on. I name it George, in honor of our feisty president; digging in his hooks when things get hard, thwarting all efforts of removal. Now that the horror has worn off I find diversion from my revulsion by creeping out my friends and family. The farther north I go the more freaked out people are about my freeloader.
“Wanna see my new pet?”
“I don’t see anything.”
“Look. See George peek out and wag hello?”
“Oh shit! That’s disgusting.”
They can’t understand why I haven’t been to a doctor.
The scalpel is my last resort. Not only is it the most invasive method, it’ll be hard to find a doctor who will take me seriously and know what to do. I return to Florida and contact my old friend from Infectious Diseases, Dr. Vera. She cut out a deep staph infection contracted on my last excursion to the tropics. She’ll know what to do. But because of the extra-specialized division of labor in our medical system, she sends me to a surgeon.
I explain the situation and after a cursory exam George fails to make an
appearance. With some skepticism the doctor shrugs, “Okay let’s do an exploratory.”
I lie on the examination table while the nurse swabs me down. “This is a new one for me,” she says. The doctor, still not having seen the parasite, numbs the area and slices across its center. The nurse’s face juts closer and with a quick intake of breath, I hear, “Jesus!”
The doctor thrusts her fingers into the opening and pulls out the plump, hairy, squirming grub. “Got the little fucker!” rolls off her tongue. I turn to her sheepish smile.
“Oops. Sorry.” she says, “but I’ve never seen anything like this before. This’ll liven up my dinner party talk for weeks to come.”
I laugh, “You didn’t believe me, did you?”
She shrugs with a side-mouthed grin.
George is still alive and not happy. His fat body--about the size of the tip of my finger--curls and uncurls, hair bristling, as the nurse prepares him for the lab. “This is the most interesting day I’ve had here in the last three years. All we usually see are those boring heart surgeries.”