Caution: It's pretty gross, if not outright scaaaary, and thus the inclusion in the Halloween theme. You have been warned.
In 2001, while on a gorgeous beach in an amazing national preserve in Costa Rica, I began to experience itching on my head. I thought perhaps I had carelessly sunburned my scalp, and carried on with it covered.
Unfortunately, after my return to New York, the itching intensified, and began to be accompanied by stabbing pains. Sunburn disproven, I figured that because I have a number of sebaceous cysts on my head and my mother had once had one on her scalp get infected, I was probably having the same problem she had. I went to my dermatologist, however, and he could find nothing wrong with them. I believe he gave me some kind of cream and an antibiotic, and I returned home.
As you may imagine, this did not stop the problem. In fact, it got worse. The pains became more frequent and a crawling sensation developed. The doctor kept telling me just to keep up with the anitbiotics, but I soon started to have weeping sores on my head. I still thought it was the cysts, but this was gross. I was having trouble getting an appointment with the dermatologist (I think he was out of town), and for a couple weeks I had to carry tissues with me wherever I went, because blood and pus would run down my face. I would be sitting on the subway, struggling mightily not to whimper or scratch at the itching and pain, and dabbing at the rivulets dripping down my forehead.
Finally, I got in to see the doctor. What did he do? He shot my head full of corticosteroids, hoping to alleviate whatever reaction was going on. Alas, this just aggravated someting, because the next morning one entire half of my face and neck were grossly swollen.
This time, the doctor even came in on a Sunday to see me as I dragged my puffed-up, oozing head (wrapped in a bandanna, which had become necessary by then) an hour plus on the subway in to see him. He sent me for blood tests in Chinatown, where Mrs. Nator had to scream at the doctors to get them to see me after some insurance paperwork snafu. At this point, with my face and neck blown up to frightening proportions, for all we knew, I could be dying.
Still, several days later, the results were showing nothing out of the ordinary. I was despondent, and it seemed that, as doctors will when they don't know the answer to something, they were beginning to think I was making up the problem, somehow. I had searched all over the internet for itchy scalp and cyst infections, but was coming up with bupkes. What the hell was going on?
What finally solved the situation was a combination of luck, faded memory and fluke. One evening, I got a particuarly awful sensation in one of my wounds, and thought "I swear it feels like something is moving in there!" I reflexively reached up to touch the area and... it felt like something was moving!
I was horrified, but not sure it had really happened. I ran to the mirror and saw... something on my head. I called out to Mrs. Nator, and asked her to come feel and look at it. She was so shocked and nauseated when she saw and felt something shifting in there, that she went into complete denial mode and couldn't believe her eyes. They were saying "my girlfriend's fucking skin is wriggling," but her brain was saying "nonononoNO." It was then that I picked up a tweezers and started pulling on the Thing in my head.
It took a long, long time. The Thing was firmly hooked in there, and I had to yank with both hands, screaming and bleeding all the while, to get it out. At last it came free, and I examined it, panting and dazed.
It had... parts. And barbs. "This is not a cyst," I yelled, "this is some kind of larva!"
Mrs. Nator was so grossed out and in denial that she kept trying to explain that it must be a cyst, and the clear segments and hook-like appendages on it were just a normal part of cyst development, somehow. I, however, suddenly had an Aha! moment. Several years before, I'm not sure how many, someone on an email list I belonged to had mentioned that in Africa someone she knew had gotten "bots", a kind of fly larvae that gets under the skin. Could there be bots in Costa Rica?
A quick run to the computer and a search that seemed to take forever, and I had a photo. I compared my Thing and yanked my reluctant partner, who was trying to suppress all memory of the preceding events as it was, in to second my opinion. Let me tell you, she turned more shades of green than you can find in a Crayola box when she realized it was true - that Thing was a bot.
For my readers' edification, here is a comparison, so you can play along:
|1. sebaceous cyst||2. botfly larva|
Anyway, I'd like to say things got resolved quickly thereafter, but let's just say I had to spend a long time convincing my dermatologist of what had happened and that I had a larva in a Ziplock bag full of vodka (the only preservative we had) to prove it. Eventually, he agreed to see the crazy lady who thought she had bugs in her head and send my specimen to a collegue at Columbia University who was a specialist in tropical parasites and diseases. Boy, did he blanche when it turned out I was right!
I think it took a day or two before they could make an appointment to get the buggers out, and although I was actually happy to have solved the mystery and proven my theory, it was pretty torturous going through all that time knowing there were creepy crawlies eating my scalp fat and relieving themselves down my forehead. The dermatologist either didn't know about the meat or vaseline methods of removing larva (traditional treatments that basically suffocate the larva into evacuating) or didn't trust them, so he cut the larva out. Pretty much the entire office of people crammed in to the room to see the worms being pulled out of a woman's head and marvel. Despite the pain and queasiness involved, I think the doctor's young assistant had it worse than I did. From the looks of her, she was thinking to herself that she had signed on for zits and moles, but never, ever this. I'm just glad the poor thing didn't faint.
And that's my story. It's no scrotal infestation, but it did turn out I had about six - SIX! - of those fuckers in my head. In my research thereafter, I did learn that while botfly infestations are way more common than U.S. doctors know about or South American tourism bureaus would like us to believe, acquiring six was something of a tour de force in the hapless tourist/myiasis department.
I will conclude this with reporting that I did return to Costa Rica for two weeks in 2005, and while I did experience some tummy trouble on the Osa Peninsula, the trip was lovely, and I returned with no more insectile travelling companions. Trust me, I was a lot more careful to cover my head!
For more disturbing stories about and photos of botfly infestations, you can go here. You can even watch a video of a woman getting one extracted from her head, if you want to feel a little solidarity with me... or you just like gross stuff.
I hope these stories will other people whose doctors don't know about botflies to self-diagnose earlier than I did. In the meantime, I wonder if I could make a botfly larva costume for Halloween?