Sunday, April 12, 2015

Stories from the ER: Bedbugs

This post conforms to the blog rules.In college, I devoured books written by medical trainees. I read Singular Intimacies, Complications, and A Not Entirely Benign Procedure (and others) as a college student. Having read these, I think I could've said about medical school what St. Therese said about the convent: I went in with my eyes open, and I was right.

When I read Danielle Ofri's story of a homeless, bug-covered man who came in through Bellevue's emergency department, I thought, "I know med school is an experience, but that's too crazy to happen to anyone but people who write books." Crazy books about crazy NYC hospitals.


A disclaimer: this story contains a few nasty things, including bedbugs and elder abuse. There will be no exaggeration. There's a happy ending.

During my ER rotation, a woman was brought in covered in bedbugs. The attending sent me in to see her and I went into the room at my usual busy pace. One of the EMTs, still packing up his stretcher, halted my progress with a few words. "You might want to...." the EMT started, then tried again: "She's sort of...covered."

Then my eyes registered the hundreds of mini-M&M sized insects swarming in and out of her clothes, around her arms and legs and fingers, on her neck, and on her sheets. I stopped short, my shoes almost squeaking on the lineoleum with the abruptness of my deceleration.

The woman herself was moaning.

"What's the story?" I asked the EMT.

"She called about pain. We had to break the door down. Found her in a chair, in feces and urine and--" he gestured to the insects "--those. Vitals were stable in transport."

With that, he left. From a safe distance, I took a history as best as I could. (I was a little disgusted.) The woman lived alone. She was unable to get out of her chair. She didn't eat or drink. Everyone once in a while a neighbor brought a sandwich. The last time he'd come was three days ago. The neighbor doesn't get too close. Nobody cleans her. Nobody cleans her house. She had home health, but they didn't come too close. She had had pain "in her seat" for a while, but didn't talk to anyone about it. She called 911 about it today.

I left the room without doing a physical exam, as the ER nurse was posting a "DECONTAMINATION" sign on the door. I was angry; elder abuse is something I feel very strongly about. I went to my attending and told him the situation.

"Someone's going to get sued," he said, meaning the home health organization.

"I'd like to help decontaminate," I said.

"Be my guest," he replied.

Outside her door, nurses were gowning up as if the patient had Ebola. I joined in: boots, cap, two gowns (the flimsy ones that only cover half of you; one for each half), and mask with face shield. None of us were wanting to take bedbugs home. We were already itchy.

I turned my anger into zeal and worked alongside the nurses, overcoming my disgust and turning myself into Love to this woman. We brought in large trash bags and a dozen packets of moist skin towelettes. Then we took off and threw away the woman's clothing and all the sheet's she'd touched. We wiped bugs and bug carcasses off her body. I cleaned where the nurses didn't. It turned out she had two decubitus ulcers from sitting so long.

It was a terrible day (that patient, plus a death, plus family troubles). That night I told Jesus all about it. "What was Your day like?" I asked, in a slightly complainy tone. And He answered, in my imagination. (This is the happy ending.)

"Someone cleaned Me."


  1. What a beautiful story in so many ways. I thought of Mother Theresa and her sisters of charity caring for and cleaning up the homeless that they encountered on the streets. This poor dear woman being so cared for with your and the nurses' hands - and how she blessed you in turn by gracing you with the gift of ministering to Christ. And thank you for the reminder to turn one's passion - such as anger - by converting it into a good such as charity and kindness. This was particularly apt for me today.

    1. Thanks for reading! The best part of the story is the way this woman was a help to me--as you put it, the way she blessed me. Happy Easter!