Posted by: Sarah | May 21, 2009

Bed Bugs on the Brain

         On a semi-frequent basis (yes, that’s an oxymoron but hear me out), I arrive at my writing desk to find torn medical journal pages carefully arranged over my keyboard. I could say it’s the elusive medicine fairy leaving bizarre trappings from her journeys, but I know better. My husband’s paw prints are all over. You see, he likes to freak me out. It’s a sick game for which he should really be diagnosed and treated with steroids or at the very least, weekly psychology exams.

This began in medical school. I attributed it to his mid-twenties. Sweet Dodo bird of youth. For example, on Halloween 2003, my husband took me into the cadaver lab, unzipped the black bag brimming with formaldehyde, and introduced me to his lady friend. My knees locked about five feet from the table. It’s the only time in my life that I’ve been “frozen stiff” with fright. Seeing the blood drain from my face, he quietly re-zipped the bag and escorted me out. Afterwards, I asked why? And especially, why that night of all nights? The creep factor was off the charts.

Halloween 2003

By the time he took the Hippocratic Oath and picked up a scalpel, I was pretty thick-skinned to his stories of torn ligaments, bones poking through flesh, ruptured blood vessels, amputations and pustule diabetic feet. It was and still is our nightly conversation over plates of chicken fricassee. I don’t mind. I enjoy hearing about my husband’s day, his difficult OR cases, the patients whose limbs he’s made right. Often, he’ll flip open his cell phone and do a slideshow of mangled appendages and infected incisions, and with each story, I watch the shadows beneath his eyes brighten, the weariness in his voice lighten, the smile return. His days are long and hard, and I greatly respect his work and compassion for strangers.

In addition, my husband is a voracious researcher and eagerly subscribes to the broader milieu of published science. His office looks like a miniature world of medical journal high-rises. The piles are everywhere, and I dare not organize them. He’s got his own “system.” In his spare time he reads each meticulously, tearing out articles for two distinct purposes: 1) Those useful for his practice and 2) those useful in making his wife’s skin crawl (that’d be mine).

Like him, I’m a perpetual student. I love trivia of all kinds. Being married to an orthopod, medical tidbits abound, and I scoop them up with rapt fascination. This makes his job harder. You see, I don’t flinch at the normal stuff anymore, so in his attempt to illicit a reaction, he’s got to go extreme.

Thus, we come full circle. I have bed bugs on the brain. He’s strategically placed an article entitled “Bed Bugs (Cimex Lectularius) and Clinical Consequences of Their Bites” from the April 1, 2009 JAMA journal on my desk. One of the headlining sentences claims, “Bed bug infestation have been reported increasingly in homes… bed bug infestation in San Francisco doubled between 2004 and 2006.” Lovely. Did I mention I’m a clean freak? My husband knows this full well.

Bed Bug--evil little vampire

The second page strategically laid upon my desktop is “Figure 1. Adult Bed Bug Before and After a Human Blood Meal Feeding” consisting of two photos: 1) an insect that looks a bit like a bulbous lightning bug—whimsical creature of my youth, 2) the same insect with its body shiny and gorging red—evil little vampire.

Okay, so while I hate to admit it, my stomach squirms. I read on: “scientific literature postulated that bed bugs may be vectors of plague, yellow fever, tuberculosis, relapsing fever, leprosy…small pox, yellow fever…” We all get the picture. However, this particular study says that they cannot confirm or deny these claims. So it leaves all of us to simply imagine what could be. Excellent. For a woman like me whose imagination is continually running amuck, this is not good.

The article goes on with a photo of bed bug “excreta” on the mattress (Figure 4.) and concludes with the statement: “Research is needed to elucidate the pathogenesis of clinical reactions to bed bug bites so that optimal therapy may be identified.” Basically, here’s a study to make you aware of these nasty buggers and to fill your dreams with fear that a microscopic pest is feasting on your blood. Thanks to the authors and JAMA and my husband. Thank you. I am now well informed.

I ask again, why? Why does my husband enjoy continually assaulting me with medical horrors? And after all these years, I think I’ve come to the answer. He’s purging.

Every morning, seven days a week, he wakes up before the sun and goes to the hospital to see his patients, all of whom are in some kind of pain that he must both sympathize with and try to heal. Many of them move on to healthier days, but some of them don’t. And my husband sees them through it all, sickness and health, life and death.

 But when he gets home, the roles are somewhat reversed. I’m the one who listens to his secrets and tries to doctor his spirit. I believe showing me these things allows him to experience a kind of shared moment of horror and in doing so, purge it from his conscious. This is my husband’s catharsis in Aristotle’s purest sense.

And so I put bed bugs aside, shut down my laptop for the evening, and join him on the couch.

“Did you see that article I left for you?” He smirks.

“I did.” I wrinkle my nose, and we both shake our heads.

“Gross,” he says.

“Gross,” I say and crawl my fingers up his arm.

Goose bumps rise up on his skin and he laughs. Then we lean into each other a little closer and talk of lighter things, like the curious soprano of Adam Lambert.

Yours truly, Sarah

P.S. If you want to check out the full JAMA article on bed bugs, have at it:



  1. Unfortunately, they’re quite common, and spreading! A recent study showed 14.5% of Cincinnati residents had had bed bugs. Cleanliness is not an issue in contracting them, since they’re a pest of exposure.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: