More than a month ago, my wife and I thought that our home had become infested with bed bugs. Over the course of a week, we began getting bitten, presumably while we slept. First me, then Elysha, then Clara and finally Charlie.
Three separate inspectors came into our home and could not find any sign of any insect whatsoever. Yet we continued to be bitten, and with greater and greater frequency.
After three weeks of inspections, consultations, the laying of insect traps and massive amounts of Internet research, it was decided that we would treat the house for eight different insects with hopes that the treatment would kill whatever could not be found. In addition, the mattress on our bed would be sealed, so if there were insects inside it, they would be trapped inside forever.
It is not an exaggeration to say that this consumed an enormous portion of our July.
On the day of the scheduled treatment, the technician found a marking on a bed sheet that was a probable sign of beg bugs. Elysha has sprayed the bed frame with tea tree oil after having read that it is an insect deterrent. Some of the spray landed on the sheet, exposing a marking that appeared to be the classic sign of bed bugs. The technician cancelled the treatment immediately. Our house, he explained, would need to be treated for bed bugs, and so an inspection was scheduled once again.
Oddly, we were somewhat pleased. Although the treatment for bed bugs runs in the thousands of dollars and would require us to throw away furniture and linens, dry clean clothing, bake our books in the oven and spend at least a week decontaminating the house, we were happy to at least know what we were dealing with. It was the inability to diagnose the problem that had been the most frustrating, and at least, it seemed as if we had an answer.
Unwilling to allow my family to continue to be bitten, I sent them to the in-laws until the inspector could return and confirm that bed bugs were actually in the home and the treatment process could begin.
On the first night that my family was gone, I did not bother going to sleep at all.
On the second night I slept for three hours in the fetal position on the kitchen floor without blanket or pillow, in fear that they were infested as well.
Then Monday morning finally came. The inspector arrived. We disassembled the bed and spent two hours looking for any signs of a bed bug. Other than a small stain on the sheet, which the inspector said could simply be a water stain, he found nothing. “If this stain was actually the residue of bed bugs,” he explained, “then we should be able to find hundreds. We can’t even find one.”
He rescheduled the initial treatment. I asked if we should also treat for bed bugs, just in case. I was desperate. He said he could not. It turns out that it is illegal to treat for bed bugs unless a bed bug can be found.
At this point Elysha and I had lost our minds. From her in-laws’ home in the Berkshires, she began placing calls with state agencies, eventually getting in touch with the chief entomologist for the state of Connecticut. Over the phone, she explained our problem.
She was asked if she was suffering from post-partum depression. She was told to stop reading the horror stories about insect infestation on the Internet.
She was emotional, and rightfully so. Her three-year old daughter and infant son were being bitten by some unseen insect, and no one was able to do a thing about it. Clara was tearing into her skin from her scratching, and Charlie was covered in a rash. She had a right to be upset. We had no idea what to do. We had begun talking about selling the house, throwing away everything we owned and starting over.
Then the mystery was solved.
Six weeks earlier, I had brought the dog to the vet for an allergy flare-up. Kaleigh suffers from seasonal allergies quite often, so the vet thought nothing of this latest attack and administered the standard treatment and prescribed the standard medication. In that time since that appointment, Kaleigh’s allergies had gotten worse, and we assumed that she was being bitten by the same insect that was biting us. In fact, she had stopped sleeping on the bed weeks before and eventually stopped coming upstairs altogether. The cat had also taken to sleeping on my desk instead of his customary cushion in our room. The animals, we thought, knew that something was wrong, too, and they had evacuated as best they could.
The same day that the insect treatment was re-rescheduled for the house, I brought Kaleigh back to the vet’s office for her scheduled follow-up visit. The vet examined her skin and was surprised to find that she was not responding to the allergy treatment as she had so many times before. I explained that we thought she was being bitten by the same thing that was biting us, and that he skin was probably reacting like ours.
“You’re being bitten, too?” he asked.
I showed him my arms.
“I know what it is,” he said.
“You do? You really do?”
“I think so,” he said. “I’ll be able to tell you in a couple minutes.”
I hugged him.
After examining a skin scraping under the microscope, he confirmed that Kaleigh was infected with a mite that causes the canine version of scabies, and we were reacting to these mites as well. The vet explained that the mite infecting Kaleigh is exceptionally rare and typically found on foxes and other wild animals. It is what gives them their mangy appearance. The only way to contract this mite is to come into direct contact with an infected animal. Kaleigh is on a leash 100% of the time and had not come into contact with any other animal in months. Other than perhaps the sniffing of an occasional dog who we pass on the streets, there is no way that she could have come in contact with a wild animal.
We still have no idea how this could have happened.
The veterinarian also explained that it is one of the worst things that can happen to an animal. It’s itchy and painful and exceptionally uncomfortable, as I can also attest. But as much as we were suffering, Kaleigh’s suffering was exponentially worse.
As the vet was explaining this condition to me, I was texting the news to Elysha, who happened to be on the phone with the state entomologist. She relayed the vet’s diagnosis to the entomologist, and the entomologist became immediately excited over the possibility of getting a sample of this rare mite. She ordered that slides of the skin scraping be brought to her office first thing in the morning.
The treatment for this mite, the vet said, is to simply to treat the dog. Once the dog is mite-free, we would be mite-free. Best of all, the mites cannot live off their host, so nothing in our home had been infested with the insect. Also, person-to-person transfer of the mite is almost impossible unless you have constant, close contact with another person. In all likelihood, I had passed the mite onto the kids and maybe even Elysha since I have the most contact with the dog, but we were not capable of passing it onto other friends or family by simply being in their presence.
The next day I was sitting in the offices of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture beneath an inflatable bed bug, where excited scientists were getting their first look at a mite that is so rare that finding a living specimen on an infected animal is almost impossible. Even the vet said that he almost never finds the mite through a skin scraping but treats the animal for them anyway, knowing how hard it is to actually find one.
Kaleigh was covered in them.
I was shown the mite while under the microscope (a horrifying little creature), asked again if Elysha might be suffering from post-partum depression, and listened as the entomologist’s boss called to ensure that they were helping “that poor woman who called yesterday.”
“Her husband’s sitting right here,” the entomologist said. “I promise to take good care of them.”
My wife can certainly make an impression.
The entomologist confirmed that if we treat the dog, the problem should be solved, though there was a chance that the mites may have infected us as well, meaning we would all need to be treated. As I was leaving the office, the entomologist said, “Next time you have an issue with insects, call us. That’s what we’re here for.”
A lesson to you all:
Don’t hesitate to go straight to the top.
Elysha, the kids and I have have now have seen multiple doctors and have decided after two weeks of waiting to be treated for the mite, just in case. In truth, it is likely that I am infected with the mite like the dog, since my rashes have persisted while everyone else’s have reduced considerably.
“You have a lot of hair,” Elysha said last night as we applied the treatment.
“So they confused me for a dog?” I asked.
The pediatric dermatologist was just as excited about our condition as the state entomologist, taking photographs of my son’s skin for a journal article that she may write about this rare case. She had never seen it before, either. Nor had any of the other doctors that we have seen so far. In every case, they have told us that they would call us back after conducting some research.
One of the doctors called the Centers for Disease Control for advice.
As I said, you cannot imagine how much of our summer has been consumed by this problem.
As my friend Shep said, “If it’s mysterious, rare or a never-seen-before condition, you are the one who is going to get it.”
My life might always be interesting, but that doesn’t mean it’s always fun.