The Cockroach in His Ear

The Cockroach in His Ear

“You did what??” I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about some of the most amazing medical cases I’ve seen and surgeries I’ve done—to make kids breathe better, to save their lives, to better their lives, or to ward off infections.  But when I told him, as an aside, in order to lighten up the morbid stuff, that late one night, many years ago, while I was on call as a resident, I pulled a live cockroach out of a kid’s ear, the tales of heroic surgery and blood and guts in the emergency rooms went out the window. “You took a live cockroach out of a kid’s ear? In the middle of the night?” “Yes, I took a live cockroach out of a kid’s ear, in the middle of the night,” I mumbled to myself.  “What’s so great about that?” I shrugged.   “Now that’s interesting,” he went on.  “I suppose,” again mumbling to myself.  “Hey!” (He now took me to meet some of his office pals, eager to share the news) “She took a live cockroach out of a kid’s ear!”  Now I was beginning to feel embarrassed.  Here I was, Harvard-trained academic pediatric airway surgeon, telling tales of truly life-threatening experiences, the butt of a big office joke.  But this was no joke.  These folks were genuinely interested. “Really?” “How did you do that?” “How did you know it was a cockroach?” “Did you kill it?” “How did it get in the kid’s ear?” “From now on, I’m sleeping with earplugs!”  I tried to keep a straight face and answer their questions, seeing that they did want to know if I really did it, and whether or not they needed to plug their ears at night.

I left the office, musing about the cool surgeries I’ve seen and performed for infants and children with breathing problems.  On the other hand, the show-stopper was that cockroach.  Is that so interesting?

A kid is brought in to the emergency room in the middle of the night by his distraught mom, but not nearly as distraught as her child, screaming and banging his head to ‘get it out!’, and ‘stop the noise!’.   I’m called by the nurse to see him.  It was a one of those rare nights, where the emergency room was quiet.  The hall lights were dimmed, and most of the room lights were off, except for one, giving a fluorescent glow to his exam room.  This seemingly healthy young boy was thrashing about all over the room, barely able to sit still in the chair.  He was shaking his head back and forth as quickly as a wet dog. The nurse, his mom, and I coaxed him to hold still for just a second.  The two women held his head as I looked in his ear with a magnified ear light.  And there it was, as creepy as those old horror movies where bugs are magnified to look like monsters.  He had a monster in his ear, banging on his eardrum with its tiny legs, as if it were Ringo Starr.  Since cockroaches can’t crawl backwards (cool fact, I’m told), it couldn’t get out of his ear, and only crawled forwards, relentlessly trying to get somewhere, anywhere, but this kid’s ear.  After I took a gasp, thankfully small enough, and muted by the child’s screams so as not to alarm his mother even more, I found the nearest ear instrument and gave the monster a little pull.  And as any fearless, mature surgeon would do, I saw it squirming from the tips of my surgical tweezer, gave another little gasp (ok, this time it was a shriek), and dropped it on the exam room floor. Before it scampered away under the exam chair, the seasoned nurse squashed it with her foot, not missing a beat, as if she’d seen this countless times before (which she had).  The boy’s mom knew what it was, and gave the nurse and me thankful winks when she saw the cockroach demolished, but spared her 8-year-old the grim details. He was overtired, terrified, and most of all relieved that the noise was gone.  There was no need for him to know what had caused it– he’d never go back to his bed again, and nobody could blame him.

After the patient and mom left the emergency room, the nurse casually said, “First roach, huh.”  “Yup.”  I tried to seem nonchalant.  She knew me well enough to know that I was still shaking in my scrubs.  “Don’t worry. You did fine.  And there’ll be plenty more.  Now try to get some sleep”.

Come to think of it, I guess it was pretty interesting.



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