Monday, June 24, 2013

99 problems but bedbugs ain't one

Yesterday I went out to my ex-brother-in-law's Long Island home to visit the kids. It was amazing. We splashed in the pool, then I mostly straightened Shira's hair (she was going to a bat mitzvah, and I did about a B/B- job on her tresses) and took Malka to lunch. I hadn't seen the girls since January, and Oedipus since March. It was nice to reconnect with them.

Especially nice was the way Malka's face lit up when I gave her some Justin Bieber hair perfume (I got it when we went to the concert last November, but I never really wore it) and how excited she was to show me the makeup she's just acquired. I had some makeup samples and girly things to give the girls -- mascara, highlighter (which is kind of like eyeshadow that you can also put on your cheeks), lip gloss. Unfortunately Oedipus kind of lost out because all I had was girly things, but I took him to "Wicked" so he didn't complain too much.

I had worried that the children would grow distant from me because I'm not seeing them as often. But how they feel about me hasn't changed, and that was a relief.

On the way home, I had to transfer from an express to a local subway at Columbus Circle. The station was crowded; I snagged the last seat on a crowded bench, next to an extremely disheveled woman. From her frizzy peach wig to her stained clothing and threadbare suitcase, every indicator pointed to "homeless" as her status.

I've worked with many homeless and formerly homeless individuals before. But I've never done street outreach, and I don't volunteer my services to random people in the park or on the subway. When I work with homeless people at my clinic, I'm not the only person observing them. They've usually built up a history with other clinicians. There's a chart. You can hazard some predictions as to how they're going to respond to you and whatever intervention you offer.

This woman was a blank slate, or, rather, a smudged slate. She was carrying a women's cloth winter coat that once had probably been described as "oatmeal" or "ecru." Now it was dingy. And she was scratching herself relentlessly. Her arms, neck, knees, ankles.

When I see a homeless person scratching, I think, "BEDBUGS!"

We've had several instances of bedbugs in the clinic where I work. There's a protocol for handling these cases: all of the clinicians will work with them in one room, where they are brought their methadone dose. We try to isolate them as much as possible to prevent contamination.

So far I've been lucky. But sitting next to this woman, her coat draped loosely over her suitcase and dangling close to my leg, her body twitching as she scratched and scratched and muttered to herself, I became nervous.

Unfortunately, standing wasn't an option. I stood for an hour straightening Shira's hair, a sacrifice I was happy to make. But by the evening, my knees were very uncomfortable. So I leaned as far away from the woman and her property as I could, and I watched for bedbugs. (Which I've seen on my patients, so I'd recognize them.)

When the local train pulled into the station, I sprang up and jumped in. When I got home, I took a tramadol painkiller, which is a very mild opiate. (So mild it's not even a controlled substance.) Went to bed at around 9:30, woke up at 4 a.m. scratching.

I thought, "BEDBUGS!!!!" And frantically searched my body and the sheets. But I was the only living macroscopic thing in that bed. There are dust mites, everyone has them. But no bedbugs. And I remembered -- itching skin is an effect of opiate use. Even as mild an opiate as tramadol.

That woman definitely needs help, and I hope she will get it. Still, it looks like she's got 99 problems but bedbugs ain't one.
Copyright (c) "Ayelet Survivor"

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