Fly boy. The nickname conjures up images of macho pilots posing in front of jet aircraft with swept-back wings. Fly Boy is also what my friends started calling me, along with other terms of endearment such as Maggot Man, when I was infected with botfly. My adventure as a parasite playground began in Quintana Roo, Mexico. I didn't notice anything until the morning I awoke with a hangover after partying with the bongo players on the beach in Playa del Carmen. Actually, it was the pain in my left arm that woke me up. It felt like somebody was butting out a cigarette in my flesh.
I inspected the area and noticed only two small wounds that looked like mosquito bites. Why all the pain?
Thinking a spider or some other Mexican bug had bitten me, I simply wrote it off and went about my business. I returned home and had all but forgotten about the bites except for the odd spell of itchiness at the site. Then one night the pain returned, this time even more intense and sustained.
Hours later, I found myself in TGH's Centre for Travel and Tropical Medicine.
The interns at the clinic were fascinated. Something had definitely set up housekeeping in my arm. What did I have festering in there? The specialist breezed in, hauled out a big magnifying glass and inspected the area. "Have you been in a jungle lately?" he asked knowingly. I dutifully outlined my recent travel history in the Lacandon jungle in Chiapas. "Hmm, looks like botfly," he pronounced.
The interns gasped in astonishment and hustled to take a look through the magnifying glass. Meanwhile, I was more than a little alarmed. What the hell was a botfly? And what were they doing in my arm?
The doctor explained that while I was in the jungle, an insect, probably a mosquito, had bitten me. Riding along on the belly of the mosquito were botfly eggs. In one of evolution's little tricks for perpetuating creepy-crawlers, botfly eggs are programmed to drop off the mosquito when it lands on something warm and hospitable.
The eggs somehow find their way into the tiny puncture made by the mosquito's bite and begin to grow into larvae beneath the surface of the host's skin. In this case, the host was me. Two botfly larvae were now growing in my arm. ***
Now, for some real-time reporting.... As I type, I am ready to puke. I can feel them wiggling around in my arm. The larvae have sharp spines to help them stay lodged in their new home, so whenever they move around it hurts like hell. They also have a little breathing tube that I can actually see coming through the puncture made by the mosquito. The little tube moves as they breathe. I have been told that the larvae are quite harmless and there is nothing to fear.
If I like the little darlings, I can simply let them grow to maturity, whereupon they will pack their bags and leave the roost, kissing Daddy goodbye. But the ongoing nauseous feeling of maggots growing in me is a total turn-off. It's creeping my girlfriend out, and I'm not allowed in the same bed with her. She's afraid they may hatch in the middle of the night.
I have three more days to go before I return to the clinic. So for three more days I'll attempt to forget about these things. That is, until one of them decides to wriggle around. I wonder what the folk on the subway would think if they knew. ***
Today's the big day. Iggy and Squiggy get their walking papers. I've had it. These things have long outgrown their usefulness as the ultimate gross-out tool. Besides, I no longer enjoy the dubious distinction of being a medical freak. I just want to go back to my life prior to becoming a maggot-infested host. The larvae seem to have grown. At least the bumps on my arm are growing, so we suspect the little critters are gnawing away at my tender bod. The doctor's scalpel cannot strike soon enough....
It's not to be. Apparently, cutting out the larvae is a last resort, and one other step is recommended. I'm instructed to take beer caps, fill them with Vaseline and place them over the spot, taping them tightly against my skin. Amazingly, this method of treatment has a long and positive history.
The idea is that the maggots start to suffocate and voluntarily leave the host, searching for air. The bugs enter the Vaseline-filled bottle cap, where they eventually die of asphyxiation. So much for modern medicine.
I need no encouragement to obtain fresh beer bottle caps for my treatment. At home I make a beeline for the fridge. Equipped with the tools for an offensive strike, I feel confident. My journey's almost over.
But wait: perhaps this is an opportunity for me to do some research and experimentation. The doctor said the maggots don't like tobacco resin. If I smother their nest with the resin, they might exit of their own accord. I light up a smoke and drink my beers. It makes sense somehow. Tobacco is used by the Indians of the Lacandon jungle to ward off insects and snakes.
Many Indians plant tobacco around their huts for this very purpose. They also eat lots of hot peppers that, when sweated out, coat the body with a natural anti-mosquito repellent, but it's a little too late for me to try that trick. Soon I have enough resin - two smokes' worth, to be precise. I cover one of the large red sores on my arm and wait. Magnifying glass in hand, I search for any sign of movement. Nada. Iggy won't budge.
Plan B. We fill two beer caps with Vaseline and tape them to my arm. I feel a little movement after about 20 minutes, then nothing. I watch TV, then take my baby botflies off to bed.
The next morning I'm off to the hospital again. The small room is filled to capacity with curious students and interns. The doctor removes the beer caps and inspects the area. Nothing. The larvae are still in me. However, there has been absolutely no wriggling at all for many hours. We assume the beasts are dead.
The doctor then starts squeezing one of the wounds to extract the carcass. If you'd like to know how this feels, ask somebody to pinch you as hard as they can and not let go for at least 10 minutes.
The doctor pinches and pinches. Everyone watches in anticipation. Then, all of a sudden, part of the maggot pops out of the hole. It's like a scene from Alien. I scream. Not because it hurts but because it's the grossest thing I have ever witnessed in my life. The doc gives another big squeeze and more of the thing pops out. I let out an even bigger scream as the thing's body is now clearly oozing out of the hole.
As everybody in the room jostles to get a closer look, the doctor advises me not to watch any more. I agree. Finally, the whole thing pops out. One down, one to go. The doc starts a new squeezing frenzy, but after a few minutes he's exhausted. A new doctor takes over. The pinching intensifies.
My arm feels like one big bruise!
Squiggy will not budge. No matter how much the doctors squeeze, the maggot won't exit. My arm is numb with pain. We finally agree to let the maggot stay there so my white blood cells can have a picnic on his body. The doctor bottles my former house pet for me to show everyone at home and off I go, Fly Boy no more. Over time, the swelling in my arm subsides. ***
You could say I possess a deeper affinity with the insect world after my ordeal, although I'm not eager to repeat the experience of serving as a maggot host. Instead, the words of my jungle brother have now come into sharper focus. He once told me that it isn't so much the big things in the jungle that you have to worry about, but the little things. How right he was.