A doctor ponders the dangers of bird poop, and more
An essay by Gulchin A. Ergun, M.D.
Disgusting is what he said. Then my darling husband delivered an out-loud, tonsil-bragging, uvula-flagging howl and continued his march to get charcoal.
“Don’t pretend like you don’t know me.” I said. “Help me. It got in my eye.”
“You’re on your own, babe,” he snorted. “Restrooms are up front.”
“A bird s&*t on my head,” I choked, weaving through the PVC pipes, fertilizer bags, buckets, and air compressors. “And that’s it? Not even Kleenex? You could’ve gotten some bleach, even rubbing alcohol. We are in a hardware store, but you just walk away? You didn’t even point me to the bathroom.”
I ran the water as hot as it could get and squirted some bubblegum-colored liquid out of a soap pump decorated with butterflies and dirty fingerprints. Between the right eye tearing from the bird bomb and the left one burning in sympathy, I calculated the odds of a parasite transporting itself into my brain and balanced that likelihood against liquefying my cornea from the gizzard acid and cleanser I’d just slathered under my eyelids. I am a doctor after all. A gastroenterologist, and I think the worst. Sure, I’ll assess the odds, even focus on the positive, but it’s to the horrible straight away. A parasite is now making a nest somewhere in my cerebrum. I have scratched my eye beyond repair, and my husband of two decades will ditch me when I need him most. My future was here. No porch rocking in the Tetons in the autumn of our lives. I was dying. Deserted, blind, and paralyzed, victimized by a brain abscess, and destitute because no one gets disability for birds not wearing diapers.
So I splashed water in my eye. Again and again and again, and as hot as I could get it. I tried not to notice the exact composition of whatever fell from the sky, but given the grainy textures, it felt like mustard seeds, blackberry pits, and cricket legs souffléd with worm slime. The choices were endless, and I let myself worry about exactly what was going to kill me.
Like parasites. Worms infect you when you least expect it. You could be finally taking that trip down the Nile. You’re hot and sweaty, decide to jump in, and while you’re cooling off, schistosoma are splashing up your urethra. Soon they’re kayaking up your blood vessels until they get stuck in the venules of your liver. Then they set up camp, get married, and start a family with their kiddie eggs destroying your lungs and the rest of your liver. Love sushi? Raw fish have rambunctious fluke that love to paddle around the shores of your bile ducts, clogging them up and triggering autoimmune storms that cause cancer. And if your feet hurt from walking all day, whatever you do, don’t take your sandals off in Louisiana or Vietnam. Strongyloides can squeeze in between bare toes. Next thing you know, you have larvae crawling under your skin and you’re coughing up worm litters.
My nemesis was probably a pigeon. And given that he didn’t bite me, it was probably his breakfast or leftovers from lunch that were about to infect me, but then again, what did I know about birds? All I knew came from Hitchcock, Heckle and Jeckle cartoons, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, a movie Matt thought was stupid, but I thought was kind of funny. In my travels, pigeons didn’t dive-bomb you, they were pretty much vegan. The only messages I imagined scrawled on their ankles were diet tips by grannies in the park. Bread and popcorn—the new healthy carbs. But other than wasting muscle and generating potbellies, stale bread didn’t kill you. What else did birds eat? I’ve seen pelicans dive for fish. I’ve watched seagulls make off with French fries. Once I saw a grackle peck at a packet of sugar until it broke open so he could lick the granules off the ground. I thought that was pretty smart. It made me think that calling someone birdbrained wasn’t all that insulting.
Even if I didn’t know what they ate, I remembered that guano is high in phosphate and nitrogen (thanks, Pet Detective) and good for fertilizing and spreading seeds. And somewhere, maybe medical school, I vaguely recalled that seeds come with bacteria or fungus that live in intestines and hitchhike to wherever they drop.
That means bugs: salmonella, psittacosis, E. coli, or fungus, like histoplasmosis or cryptococcus. What else? Viruses … like bird flu, St. Louis encephalitis virus, and, oh my God, Ebola.
I grew up in Ohio. I played in that dirt. A lot of people in the Mississippi and Ohio River Valley get histo. The spores love soil contaminated with bat or pigeon poop. I probably inhaled some spores. That would have triggered an upper-respiratory infection. It would explain the calcified lymph nodes on my chest X-ray. It would be the most common cause, but unless you’re immune-suppressed, shouldn’t be a problem. The next four? Treatable with antibiotics. But Ebola?!? That was bad, real bad. That’s the virus they make movies about. It closed down that Dallas hospital, even got a nurse infected despite precautions. It has almost perfect transmission efficiency. Leaves you dying a horrible but colorful death, oozing blood from your eyes, brain, lungs, and skin within days of exposure. No good-byes. No time. No treatment. We live in Houston. That bird could have flown down here after a pit stop in Dallas.
No wonder Dad didn’t let us have pets. He always said it was because my baby brother with Downs was more vulnerable to infections. How my sister cried when he told us Tag-Along had to go. She loved that fuzzy big- nosed lemon pouf duckling she raised for a science class. We thought he was just mean when he gave him to a neighbor with a farm. We were so wrong. He was just watching out for us.
So where was my bugger headed? He was probably making a beeline for my temporal lobe. After all, that’s where my memory and emotion are stacked and stored. And if I had to pick the thing that matters to me most, I’d pick my memories. That’s what I hoard, although I am proud of how good I’ve gotten about throwing things away. I’ve learned to ditch ticket stubs from most concerts (except my first, ninth grade, Deep Purple, 1972, Cloverleaf Speedway, Ohio) and pitch birthday cards (barring those from Mom and Dad, my sister, brother, husband, close friends, and aunts from Turkey). But I have to be the one doing it. Matt can vouch for that. He still can’t understand why I got mad when he threw away the red spiral notebook I kept from my fellowship, the one with all my study notes for the boards. “They’re twenty years old,” he said. “You passed the boards. You’ll never take them again. Why would you save them?” “I just do,” was all I could say.
When this critter lays the foundation of his new home, he’ll do it by eating up my memory bricks, one by one. I don’t care if he devours Denise Bloxton with her big butt and Afro, wearing those red-and-blue-striped tube socks. She stole my patchwork suede purse in eighth grade. When I got it back, she had her name all curlicued on the side. He can chew through the part where I threw up in Andy Katz’s car and on his shoes after drinking flaming shots of something orange-colored in college. He can take my fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-grade school pictures. In fact, I should request he take the lecture I gave at the American College of Gastroenterology in 2005—five thousand people, videotaped for a DVD, and I was immortalized with the worst haircut of my life. People asked me if I was doing okay, since it looked like I’d lost my hair to chemotherapy. Yup, take that one, but I don’t want to lose the day I actually jumped and screamed with happiness when I got into medical school. That’s the one that should have been taped. And don’t bore through my birthday on Vancouver Island. I want to keep that first vacation with Matt. I don’t want to forget how we found all the restaurants closed on Sunday night and had to celebrate with pretzels and 3.2 percent beer we found at a gas station. And please, please, make a detour around our hike to Inspiration Point and Hidden Falls. It’s where we found spring flowers confettiing a mountainside that surrounded a lake so impossibly blue, it was like staring through a sapphire.
Maybe the bugger could be open to suggestions. I could propose he look at property in my frontal lobe. It’s mostly silent, probably a good place to raise a little microbial family. But come to think of it, I do a lot of work there. Executive function mostly: impulse control, all my prioritizing and strategizing. With juggling my patients, managing my staff, running a center, and teaching residents, it’s so much of what I do that my frontal lobe is probably twice the size of an average person’s. I could give up 50 percemt and not miss it. As for the impulsivity, well, I could use a little liberation. Doctoring took that out of me. Maybe I could give him a garage apartment and live with a little personality change. I would like to tell people exactly what I think sometimes, maybe even say no sometimes. My buddy, the parasite tenant, could help.
I may wonder about this for years, and even if I turn out okay, it could seriously ruin my marriage. If it weren’t for Ace (hardware, not detective), I wouldn’t have known how Matt would react if I got sick. Maybe this was his version of “better or worse” and I’d misjudged him? He does have lone-wolf tendencies. He’s still perturbed I gave our number to his medical alumni association. “Now they’ll know how to get hold of me,” he’d snarled. He was a bit feral in the beginning, but I left food out, and little by little, I got to pet the creature, and eventually he stayed. But then, he’d probably say I got it all wrong. He’d offer he did the stalking and got exactly what he wanted. That wouldn’t surprise me. We’re opposites, but that’s exactly what I like about him. And he makes me laugh. I’d miss that.
So who will write the obit, and who’ll pick out what’s on the tombstone? Matt hates that kind of stuff. I’ll have to write it myself.
Gulchin A. Ergun, taken for granted, beloved wife and sister, gastroenterologist with a name no one can pronounce … respected member of the medical staff died an ignoble death …
Wait, I’m wasting my precious time. Matt and I still haven’t decided where we should be buried. I know I bought those plots in Cleveland, but they were a great bargain. My sister bought six in a bankruptcy case, and it’s where my parents are buried. All the kids took a pair. Where else can you buy prime plots in the best part of the cemetery with all the old trees? I thought if I died first, Matt wouldn’t visit anyway. Graveyards aren’t his thing. We don’t have kids, so landing where my siblings lived seemed like a good idea. Then someone might visit. But what if this parasite is a
slow grower and Matt goes first? He doesn’t want to be buried in Cleveland. He’s from Cincinnati. There are no direct flights. Visiting him wouldn’t be easy. It would involve a layover in St. Louis or Chicago. This is where cremation starts making sense. Why limit the visits to a graveyard? Sift the spouse into a jar and take him with you. I know TSA limits you to three ounces of fluid on a plane, but are there restrictions on ashes?
Some say poop landing on your head is good luck, but I’m not given to superstition. My family’s pretty pragmatic. We didn’t throw salt over a shoulder or knock on wood. We may have had the blue charms against the evil eye, but everyone from Turkey has a nazar in the house. Mom said it wasn’t about luck. She said life was about fate, and that fate was written on your forehead when you were born, we just couldn’t read it.
So that was it? My fate was checked by a bird blotch shaped like West Virginia?
That night in bed:
“I’m mad at you.”
“Why? I didn’t do anything.”
“That’s the point. You didn’t do anything.” “About what? Is this like when you wake up from some dream, and you’re mad at me?”
“No. I was awake, but you didn’t help me.”
“You mean dinner?”
“No, I mean at Ace.”
“That’s what you’re mad at? Because I didn’t go to the bathroom with you?”
“No, because I was dying of a brain abscess and you left me.”
“I didn’t leave you, and you don’t get brain abscesses from pigeon poop. If anyone’s going to get a brain abscess, it’s me. I’m the one who got bitten by the tsetse fly in Africa. Remember that? Next to the Mara River. There’s no vaccine for that. I have to worry about trypanosomiasis for the rest of my life. And what did you say about it? ‘No Matt, it’s not a bite. It’s a zit.’ Boy, were you wrong.”
Then, the wrap of his arm. “So what do I need to do?”
“Kiss it. I’ll forgive you if you kiss my eye.” And he is obedient. “And, I might have been a little bit wrong. If I’m not blind or paralyzed, I’ll take care of you when you get sleeping sickness.”
Then he whispers in my ear, “Promise me something.”
“Anything. No feeding tube, no nursing home? Just name it.”
“Stop talking. You think too much. Now come here, my little s&*t head.”
Gulchin A. Ergun, M.D., is a gastroenterologist and the medical director of the Reflux Center & Digestive Disease Department at Houston Methodist Hospital. She is also clinical associate professor of medicine at Houston Methodist and Weill Cornell Medical College. This essay first appeared in Jet Fuel Review.