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Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
Several days after talking to John Furman at the bed bug lecture and making my captive bed bug “more comfortable” in a tiny piece of accordion-folded paper, I decided to bring it and the body of a mystery bug, identical to one that I’d been told was a flea the previous summer, to Tim Wong at M&M Pest Control.
Like other reputable PCOs who are wont to give some free advice to people looking for bed bug assistance and moral support, he had advised me off and on during my extended crisis. I had been in touch with M&M periodically as I researched the bed bug problem both for personal and professional reasons, so I decided to see what he had to say about the bed bug and what it might tell me about this second infestation.
I also wanted a definitive analysis of the other bug that I’d found the previous summer—although I had brought the original one to the doctor and left it for the lab (thinking it was a tick), I had found a couple of replicas since then.
Given that not a single flea had jumped into the trap I’d bought, I was curious.
“Ah,” Wong said after tipping my pet bed bug onto a white piece of paper and scrutinizing her under a microscope. “A female, definitely. A quite healthy female. In fact I would give you three dollars for her.”
Wong explained that those who study bed bugs are always looking for pre-treatment specimens and are willing to pay. This little woman was apparently hot to trot and would be a fine addition to any lab colony. Visions of raiding Arnold’s apartment and selling jars upon jars of bed bugs to pay for my latest infusion of ziplock bags danced through my head.
I gave some thought to selling Hilda. Maybe she would mate and have a family. The bounty she could earn me plus another dollar or so would have bought me a latte at Starbucks. But I decided to keep her. Again, I must have been attached. Plus I wanted to see how long it would take her to die without food or air.
I declined Wong’s offer, and listened as he told me she was two to four months old, which meant she and her compadres had been thriving somewhere, if not in my apartment, during my entire “bed bug free” period. This fit right in with my suspicions that everything was probably emanating from Arnold’s apartment next door to me.
As for Hilda’s companion—the shiny, engorged-looking bug that was exactly like the one that my doctor’s lab had declared to be a flea the previous summer, rather than a tick (it was obviously not a bed bug)—Wong said, “That’s a spider beetle. Does not even bite.”
Now, this was news I could have used oh, I don’t know, way back in summer? Because if I had known it was not a flea when I’d found the first one back in July, I would have been quicker to suspect bed bug bites. And I may not have spent $500 on a new bed that was now probably almost as infested as my first one.
Befuddled, I e-mailed my doctor. I mean, he had had it analyzed at a lab, right? Staffed by an entomologist, no? I asked what the deal was, how the “flea” had been identified and told him I was reinfested.
His terse reply: “report only says tick identification states not a tick looks like a flea.”
I knew he had sent my suspected tick to a lab, but it was only now that I realized that a medical lab would not have an entomologist on board, just a person who knew the difference between a disease-carrying tick and anything else. I smacked myself in the head ruefully. After all, this was the same doctor who had told me for two months the previous spring that I had hives. Why had I trusted his opinion this time?
To be fair to him, because bed bugs don’t transmit disease—and only indirectly cause physical health-related problems like insomnia and extreme itching (if you’re a reactor, that is)—they tend not to be classified as a public health problem, so they can fall through the cracks when it comes to the medical profession.
And bites, or itchy welts, can be caused by so many things that a doctor cannot diagnose “bed bug bite” definitively. The most telling signs of bed bugs—fecal traces, cast skins and bed bugs themselves—do not present medically. So a doctor can only tell you to look for signs. And to do that he or she must think out of the box.
I was heartened somewhat, however, when a few weeks after our email exchange my doctor said during an appointment that he had actually used what I’d told him. “Another patient had a skin ... thing. I told her to check for bed bugs.”
At least my suffering was not completely in vain.
Meanwhile, with the bites escalating and my nighttime torture increasing, January 2010 dragged on as I simultaneously waited for Bobby’s arrival with bated breath while scheming to get him replaced by a competent professional.
Next Week: Bobby and the Drione Dust Bowl
Theresa Braine is a NYC-based journalist and bed bug survivor whose work has appeared in the NY Daily News, People, Newsday and other outlets. Bedbugged! is her weekly column about life in the bed bug trenches and how to climb out with your sanity intact.