Biology in Belize: Jaguars, Manatees, and Botflies
Class of 2008
After 17 days of life in paradise without air conditioning and bathing in sewage-contaminated water, it was good to be home. I returned stateside about ten shades darker, five pounds lighter, and with a new appreciation for hot showers. The first thing I did upon returning to the States was binge on milkshakes and fries from McDonald's, courtesy of my brother who had met me outside of the U.S. Customs Processing area in the Houston airport. The next thing I proceeded to do once I reached my Fulton homestead was tend to my sun burnt shoulders that had been fried during the two-hour boat ride to and from the Blue Hole and the countless mosquito bites that plagued me during our two-night stay deep in the jungle at Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Sanctuary.
Upon return to a full day's work the following day with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, my colleagues could not help but be envious of my overseas encounters with Belizean wildlife. For the next week, with the memories of the trip's adventures still fresh in my mind, I told them stories about my encounters with wild manatees during a snorkel in what seemed like open ocean. There was the story about the juvenile Black Howler Monkey, fondly known as George, who descended from the jungle canopy that ate bananas out of our palms. There was also the story about Andrew being stung by a scorpion on his way back from Amigo's and the pleasures of indoor plumbing. There was Jennifer and the Andrew's discovery of fresh taipir tracks along the riverbank during an early morning nature hike and then there was Natalie and Samantha's unpleasant encounter with fire coral. There was also the set of jaguar tracks that I had found alongside the main road in Cockscomb after a heavy rain. There were flipped canoes, Mayan lunches, and boxes upon open boxes of Immodium thanks to the not-always-pleasant after effects of Marie Sharp's hot sauce.
As the days passed, the sun burn subsided and the mosquito bites began to heal. Back in the office, I had grown accustomed to my eight-hour workday and everything was returning to normal except for there was a mosquito bite that wasn't healing quite like the others. If anything, it had gotten only more inflamed as the weeks passed. Thinking back, it was the same bite that stung whenever I took a dip in the ocean or lay out in the sun too long. I itched and I itched but it never did any good.
One day after getting out of the shower, I noticed that the bug bite that had been causing me so much grief had a small hole. Thinking that I may have simply scratched off a scab, I thought nothing of it and went to bed. The following morning at work during an itching session, I happened to look down at the hole and noticed that "it" was excreting clear fluid and "it" was breathing. Intrigued, my colleague Jimmy ran over with a magnifying lens and held it over my stomach where the bite was located. What he discovered was what he had been hoping to see and what I had been dreading all along: I was the host of a larval botfly. For the remainder of the day, he became quite a celebrity at the office as my co-workers periodically congregated around his breathing hole, waiting for him to make his split-second appearance when he popped up his siphon in order to get some fresh air.
What started out as an irritation quickly turned into fascination and amazement. As news spread about my flesh eating-parasite that was anchored deep in my subcutaneous fascia, I began to receive daily phone calls and e-mails from close friends and family requesting updates on my new "pet." It didn't take me long to figure out a way to make him perform on my command. I quickly learned that if I wiped a thin layer of spit across the warble, he would quickly thrust his siphon towards the opening in order to break the surface tension. The viewing audience would quickly respond with "oohs," "aahs," and the occasional, "that's just plain wrong."
For a short while, I didn't mind him hanging around. Dr. Amspoker even offered me twenty-five extra credit points if I allowed him to fully develop and pupate. As unpleasant as it may have sounded, I did for a short time seriously consider allowing him to develop as I weighed the physical pain of his development versus the pain of studying for one of Dr. Amspoker's microbiology exams.
Within a few days, it became clear I would have to forego the extra credit and suffer a few sleepless nights in the name of education as he was simply not cooperating. What began as a cool, biological phenomenon rapidly developed into a painful experience that made me crabbier and whinier than I already am or at least find myself to be. I would be feeding horses and suddenly keel over in pain as he twisted and tilled himself deeper and deeper into my flesh with his bristly spines. I likened it to being stung by a really large bumblebee continuously for what was sometimes 45 seconds to a minute at a time, multiple times a day. I was simply astounded at how inflamed and puffy the warble had become within such a short time frame. With the decision to kill hiim already made, I simply had to find a way to rid myself of this miniature spawn of Satan.
I tried in earnest to pinch him out, but the crafty bugger only become more reclusive with my efforts. While taking a bath one day, I saw his siphon slowly ascend from the depths of his fleshy lair in an attempt to get some oxygen. I quickly tried to get underneath him and force him out, but I only ended up making him angrier when I accidentally amputated a large chunk of his siphon. I felt him painfully anchor himself deeper in my flesh. That night, I accepted defeat. He may have won the battle, but I was determined to win the war.
Thinking that I may have killed him in the events of the previous night, the next morning I wiped some spit over his breathing hole and waited. Within moments, he quickly broke the surface tension and returned to the fleshy depths of subcutaneous tissue. He may have been bruised and battered, but he was definitely not down for the count. It was then that I decided to call in the big guns.
That afternoon I began to systemically call physicians in the area that I found to be qualified in taking on such an interesting and perplexing case. To my surprise, out of the four physicians in the area that I contacted, not one of them wanted to help me, more or less examine me out of curiosity. One of the physicians, a questionable infectious disease physician that shall remain anonymous, looked at me cautiously from the safety of his reception desk as if I had stepped out of the movie Outbreak.
"Are you sure you can't do something for me today?" I pleaded. His only explanation for not wanting to assist me with my dilemma was that he did not have the right tweezers. Tired of being referred and turned away, my coworkers and I decided that the only place that would not turn me away would be place that could not deny patient care: the emergency room of St. Mary's Hospital. Armed with handouts about botflies, I strolled up to the reception area and checked myself in. Not wanting to get my hopes up, I bluntly asked the receptionist if she thought the doctor on call would be able to help me that afternoon as time was of the essence and I didn't want to waste their time or mine. She assured me that they would do what they could and even made copies of my handout for the staff to read.
As they processed me in triage and took my vitals, the attending nurse stated that he had seen many botflies in his day. Excited that someone in central Missouri may actually know what I was talking about, it wasn't long before I was let down when he told me that the botflies he was used to seeing were on rabbits and horses. Not only did I turn out to be the most interesting clinical case that day, but I was the first known human botfly host to ever walk the halls of St. Mary's ER. After what seemed like hours of lying in a hospital gown on a gurney, my assigned doctor finally strolled in and examined the warble. We made small talk about Belize and the weather and his proposed strategies for removing him.
Before he cut me open, Dr. Larry had me assure him that I was one hundred percent certain that I contained a botfly. Wanting to verify my self-diagnosis himself, he read my less-than-scientific handout and held a lighted magnifying lens over the warble. Without any movement on his end, Dr. Larry took my word for it and prepped me for surgery. He remained motionless as the area was prepared with Betadine Microbicide and injected with what seemed like never ending syringes of Lidocaine. Although they used a needle so small it was almost cute, I couldn't help but squirm and writhe in discomfort. When the local anesthetic had set in, Dr. Larry began the tedious procedure of blunt dissecting the warble layer by layer. Every now and then he would dissect a layer of tissue hadn't quite received the proper amount of anesthetic and I would let out a more than audible sound of discomfort that was followed with a slew of very unladylike words. Dr. Larry turned out to be a very caring and gentle physician as he apologized every time he saw my face grimace or felt me flinch.
The little-more-than-an-inch incision split the breathing hole directly through the middle which allowed Dr. Larry to follow his path of destruction. Although the method of removing him sounds rather simple, the surgery ended up taking about an hour from initial incision to final stitches. When all was said and done, Dr. Larry had beads of sweat running down his face as the botfly larva was much deeper than initially thought. The doctor found him hiding out at about 3/4 of an inch deep. With such an inflamed bite, we were amazed that he measured no more than 1/5 of an inch long. He was quickly plopped in a jar of saline and paraded around the ER as if it was a newborn child. The most amazing thing about it all was that despite the copious amounts of injected Lidocaine, he was very much alive when they finally pulled him out.
After the wound was flushed and sewn up, I was quickly loaded up with prescriptions for antibiotics and painkillers before being sent home. As the days pass, the incision has begun to heal nicely and looks nothing more than a mini-appendectomy. Parasite free, life has returned to normal and the memories of him have been overtaken with long hours at the office and gravel roading adventures. For a split second, sometimes I swear I can feel another one turn inside me, but I itch around the dressing and the pain subsides. Down the road, after the tan lines and inside jokes of our school campus trip to Belize have faded and become but a distant recollection, I will always have the scar to remind me what an experience of a lifetime our trip to Belize really was.