There are jobs that one associates with the art of caregiving: nurses, firefighters, teachers and parents are a few obvious choices. But I have found that there is a group of people who are very underrated in their ability to care for us and protect us from harm. These are the people who work in pest control. They are exterminators. I have met many in my line of work as a physical therapist. They have unusual injuries, like straining their shoulders from carrying a heavy pack of insecticide to spray throughout the basement of a factory. They tend to hurt their backs from crouching into corners to apply caulking, which prevents bugs and rodents from entering our homes. Most of us never consider how hard the people in this line of work fight for us. They destroy rat colonies, prevent the reproduction of German cockroaches and discover the portal of entry where mice sneak into our homes, searching for the tiniest crumbs from last night’s take-out order.
My friend Paul was not born into the extermination business. Rather, he bought one from his father-in-law, Narciso. Narciso’s business had been booming in the 1990’s, and Narciso was ready to retire. He sold his business to an employee back then, and that employee had run the business into the ground. Paul witnessed the business of his father-in-law sink, become hollow and ill-producing of money. Paul was not the sort of guy who had ever thought about pest control; but he was also the sort of guy who did not like to see an empire fall. Paul knew that this legacy of his father-in-law would be valuable to his wife and children, though he had never spoken about it.
Paul decided to take over this extermination business of his wife’s father. If you ask him about it, he will tell you that it is a profitable business. Paul is proud of the work that his team is doing in the field to destroy the small creatures that spread disease and create a nuisance for humans. But he does not realize how much he is helping humanity. And it was not until last year that I realized what Paul was doing, until one of Nature’s creatures was more than a pesky nuisance in my own life.
It was just last May when I came down with a very high fever. I was due to attend my niece’s wedding in Pittsburgh, and became quite ill. I called my primary doctor and explained my symptoms: muscle and joint aches, profound fatigue and a fever of 102 degrees. My doctor told me to take Tylenol and rest. She and I both believed that I had come down with the flu.
The symptoms did not abate, but when I finally got into the shower two days later, I glanced down at my abdomen and saw a black spot. I looked closer. It was a tick, embedded in my skin. I called my primary doctor, who promptly extracted the tick and sent it out for testing. In the meantime, she prescribed an antibiotic, and after taking it for a few days, I felt well enough to see my niece get married in the Iron City of Pittsburgh.
Upon arriving home from this magnificent celebration, my doctor informed me that the tick which was sent out to be tested was a Lone Star Tick. This particular insect had given me a case of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. I was very relieved to hear of this diagnosis, as Lyme’s disease is quite prevalent in the part of the country where I live. Moreover, Lyme’s disease has a very nasty way of sticking around in the body for years after the tick’s initial bite. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, on the other hand, retreats with the use of doxycycline, a cheap and effective antibiotic. My doctor was not as optimistic as I was, however. “You need to see an Infectious Disease Specialist,” she warned. “I am not skilled at diagnosing tick bites, and I want to make sure that you get to the root cause of this problem.”
I scheduled an appointment with an Infectious Disease doctor. I went to his office in Edison, NJ. I was ushered into a treatment room and waited to meet him. A kindly, rotund Indian physician entered the room. He was wearing a double-breasted suit. Everything about the man was elegant; his handshake, his countenance and the way he addressed me as ‘dear’. This physician took his time asking me questions. He reviewed the lab reports sent from my primary doctor, as he rubbed his right temple with his index finger. At last, he looked up at me.
“It seems as though you have been treated accordingly for everything a person might contract from a tick,” he said. “The antibiotic administered to you has cured your Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, but it also would have treated Lyme’s disease, because you and your doctor caught this on time.” I was overjoyed.
The doctor grinned when he saw my gleeful response. “But there is something else I must tell you, dear. I treat many people who have been bitten by ticks. They tend to get fearful, and they pin all manner of blame on the tick. Many people get health problems, often decades after their initial tick bite, and they go back to the moment when they were bitten. They spend their entire lives chasing the tick. Whatever you do, do not chase the tick. Everything that happened with this tick is over now.”
As I drove home on that sunny afternoon, I thought of Paul and his extermination business. I recalled a story that his wife Suzee had told me a few years back. During Hurricane Irene, in 2011, many homes near where Paul and Suzee resided were flooded with water. One local widow had placed all of her appliances and worldly goods on her front lawn after the flood. This widow left her home to run errands and returned to it, only to find that her kitchen appliances had been stolen. Paul remembered this. And when the walls were torn down to rebuild this widow’s home, extensive termite damage was revealed. Paul took his teenaged son Michael (who had no experience spraying insecticides), back to the house and treated it to destroy the termites. He did this and never sent a bill to the homeowner.
I have no doubt that the widow of the flooded house, the one who had lost her husband to something I do not know about, the same one who had lost her appliances to theft after a major flood, would describe Paul as a caregiver. In the worst of moments, he had helped her. Paul never talks about this story. Maybe it is because he does not see himself as a hero. But maybe, also, he still does not know that he is a caregiver to so many.
We all have a tick, a thing that we believe has poisoned us, an old memory or idea that embeds itself in our abdomens. It is an ugly little creature, one that met us years back, one that we are quite certain will stay with us forever. What we fail to remember is that there are others who will protect us from this insect. There are the Indian doctors who will stop the disease process from continuing, they will remind us to stop looking back and blaming the tick for all that went wrong. Then, there are the Pauls who will show up, when we have lost everything, to help us preserve the remaining foundations of our homes. These exterminators will fight like the dickens to keep us safe and help us rebuild from the time that the tick showed up. We are not alone. We have so many people who help us in the run of life, people who can chase the very enemy within, the one we thought only we could see. We will know when we have met such people, because we will stop chasing the tick. We will become free when we remember that the people caulking up the cracks and spraying down the enemy are protecting us. And they don’t even mind doing it, because they don’t just like their jobs. They LOVE their jobs!