During my last day’s walk across Louisiana, despite repeatedly dousing myself in bug spray and eventually wearing a rain jacket (for pest prevention) on a warm, sunny day, I still endured over a hundred mosquito bites as I walked through the Bayou Savage National Wildlife Refuge en route to the Mississippi state line. Bugs were no stranger anywhere within the sweet swamp that is southern Louisiana, nor are insects a stranger anywhere else in America. I found my first-ever tick in central California, half its body buried into the soft skin of my left armpit (this happened in the home of the Ticker Family–no joke). Fire ants stormed me for the first of many more attacks in central Texas. I met horse flies and no-see-ums via their bites in Mississippi. And I pulled a tick a day from my skin during the final hundred miles of northern Virginia. I brushed countless bugs from every exposed part of my body in each of the nineteen states I walked.
Rather ironic then that the worst and most painful of bug experiences would come after the walk, when–of all places–I was filling up at a gas station.
As I was examining the tires, a fly landed on my left ear. Given that I’ve embraced the live-and-let-live philosophy in recent years, I no longer swat landing insects upon first contact. Bugs landing on the ear typically lose interest within a second or two, and buzz off. But not this one. The fly started crawling from the edge to the entrance of my ear, at which time I gave him a warning finger–trying to scoop him out and chase him away. Mr. Fly Guy instead reacted by crawling deeper into my ear. And all of the sudden he was causing me very, very intense pain (guys, you know exactly where you NEVER wanna be kicked, right? This was the kind of pain this little bug was causing). I dropped to my knees and screamed in agony as the fly squeezed himself as deep down as he could into my ear canal–a very excruciating and scary experience. (I hadn’t actually seen this fly–was it a wasp? Was he going to begin stinging me there??)
Given the immediate scale of the pain, the ER was the first thing that came to mind. However, still fresh from the Road, I am not yet “officially employed,” hence, I don’t enjoy the commonly-taken-for-granted benefit of medical insurance. I did NOT want another three thousand dollar bill–which was what the Richmond hospital charged me when roadside glass sliced open my left foot while walking into the Virginia state capital. Rocio & I instantly got busy studying our options online.
First:the still-buzzing bug could be neutralized (killed) by pouring baby oil into my ear. I generally do all I can to avoid killing insects, but it wasn’t getting out on its own, so it was time to weigh other measures. 20 minutes into the ordeal, we arrived to a local pharmacy and bought a bottle of baby oil. With me lying flat, left ear up, Rocio drained a small amount of oil into my ear. The fly had been quiet for a few minutes, leaving me wondering– but the oil awoke it to a fierce final fight to emerge (OUCH!!!). After about twenty seconds, the ear-invading insect flatlined. (Whew!) Next, Rocio tried to wash water into my ear to bring the bug up and out. We tried this again and again–it wasn’t working, and we learned that we wouldn’t be getting it out on our own.
Time to go to the pros.
Sans insurance but armed with a smartphone, I started searching for and making semi-blind phone calls to a variety of “affordable” clinics I was finding in the greater Asheville area–the final stop of our brief weekend getaway–the first time we’d left Atlanta since the Walk. I had to be a local NC resident to qualify for every low-income clinics I was finding. That said, asking, “Is there anyone else you may suggest I call?” eventually led to an answer: Blue Ridge Community Health Services’ fantastic sliding-scale clinic in nearby Hendersonville.
After a brief wait, a friendlier-than-fancy-waitress Ms. Susie answered the phone and booked me for an appointment about three hours later. I arrived to a very helpful and professional staff, and upon filling out all paperwork, they told me I qualified for their best sliding-scale option. (Whew!)
Unlike what many would think of with the idea of a “more affordable” clinic, I was actually welcomed in before my scheduled appointment time. Nurse Star, (I’m not sure if Star is an RN, an NP, or a PA–so I’ll simply refer to her as “Nurse Star”) welcomed me to my patient room, and was the first to have a look into my left ear. “Wow!” Star said with surprise, laughing merrily in disbelief, “You have a really big bee in your ear!”
Next in was Dr. Eichhorn, a kind, thirtysomething physician from whom I was awaiting that assured look of calm certainty and confidence (i.e., “YES–that bug will soon be out of your ear”).
I quickly learned that this is not something that happens every day in the office. Dr. Eichhorn brought in colleague Dr. Johnson to have a look as well. Dr. Johnson, a tall, energetic blonde doc of similar age, took a brief look and smiled, “I once pulled a cockroach from a man’s ear while working in Africa.”
“This should make a fun story. Do you mind if my girlfriend takes pictures?” I asked.
“Sure,” Dr. Eichhorn answered. “If you want, you can come here and get a picture of what the bug looks like inside his ear,” as he welcomed Rocio to have a gander through his otoscope.
Dr. Eichhorn’s plan of attack was to use as much water as it took to pressure wash Mr. Fly Guy up and out of my ear.
Oh, how I wish it had been so easy. Water cannon in hand, Eichhorn blasted me with tidal wave after tidal wave of pressurized water. Sadly, as the bug remained tightly lodged deep inside my ear, our shared confidence in this aquatic approach was drifting away with each consecutive wave. The pain in my ear was also growing with each consecutive H2O blast. And since our sense of balance comes from the inner ear–it didn’t take long for the tidal waves to cast me into a whirlpool of dizziness. I had to close my eyes to calm the wildly spinning room. Luckily, every time the vertigo hit, it wore off within a couple of minutes.
We eventually reached the point where we all knew we wouldn’t be washing the bug out with water. So, it was scary tool time. Instrument of pain: forceps. The new plan was to tunnel these steely pliers down my ear canal, lock on to the big dead bug, and muscle him out by hand. The discomfort and pain had been growing every time the water cannon burst into my ear, but compared with what was to come, I hadn’t felt nothin’ yet.
Mr. Fly Guy had crawled as deep as he could into my ear canal, not only causing me the initial knee-dropping pain, but also, as big as he was, he bottlenecked himself back near my ear drum in the process. Squeezing his dead, extended body out through the narrow hall of my ear canal–with minimal pain–was the challenge du jour.
Dr. Eichhorn tried again and again. He was very focused and he got close to success several times; however, as he ended up revealing to me, “Every time I’m close to getting him out, that’s when you twist in pain the most.”
Dr. Eichhorn and I both were sweating by now. True, I was reacting A LOT to their attempts to pull the big bug from my ultra-sensitive left ear. However, I didn’t know that my writhing in pain was what was stopping him. (What a compassionate guy!)
So, we devised a plan: let’s try to pull the bug out, regardless of the pain. I knew I was reacting A LOT (it really freakin’ hurt!!), but I was hoping that one swift yank could just produce the six-legged invader and get it over with. So I told them: “I may react to the pain, but unless I say ‘STOP,’ please continue till it’s out.”
“Yes, ‘STOP’ can be your ‘safe word,’” Star concurred. (Calling it a “safe word” almost had me comically ready to switch STOP to “cacao.”)
Eichhorn passed the forceps off to Dr. Johnson, who with his big smile of enthusiasm, was 100% ready to go for it. Especially given they had applied the numbing agent lidocaine to my ear canal, I didn’t think I’d reach the threshold of excruciation to actually use the safe word, but as Dr. Johnson went for it, it didn’t take too long for the pain to rocket up so quickly that after a stunning shriek of pain, I quickly remembered my safe word: “STOP!!”
“It’s OK now– we got it!”
Still somewhat stunned from the super-painful extraction, but with everything behind me now, in a daze my fear of further pain switched to fascination: I was now examining the little bug before me. (So this is what I’ve been carrying around in my ear half the day…)
Not only did I want a picture, Dr. Eichhorn and Nurse Star pulled out their cell phones so that they too could get pics of the ear-invading insect.
Rocio was by my side the entire time. And even though I kept asking her to take pictures (I knew this would make a fun story), it warmed my heart and soul that as the pain escalated, she instead chose to ignore the camera, come close to me and hold my hand–taking my tight squeezes for each moment of pain. So happy I was to have my Sweetie there to hold my hand .
I emerge not only with enormous gratitude to Blue Ridge Community Health Services and all sliding scale clinics, I also hold great respect for the great work that so many doctors do–for they go through many years of grueling training, and have to bring their greatest knowledge, compassion, creativity and so many other tools to the profession to truly excel and help us all to their greatest ability. Thank You Dr. Eichhorn, Dr. Johnson, Nurse Star, and SO many others!!!
While those insatiably hungry swamp mosquitoes of Louisiana were easily my #1 insect challenge of 5,000 miles of walking across America, the distress they caused me didn’t hold a candle to the pain this one non-stinging, non-biting gas station bug gave me Monday.
All that said, I still plan to not kill any bug that lands on my ear in the future. As much as I can, I will continue to catch and release, to live and let live…