The Infestation: a reflection by Paul Klassen
This story describes an event that occurred during my work as an attendant at the State Hospital ad Marlboro, New Jersey sometime between 1943 and 1946. This particular event took place on the ward known as Men’s Senile III, or MSIII. This ward housed a variety of old, mostly mentally and physically deteriorated patients. They were patients for whom no hope of improvement existed. But there were others whom we might describe as victims of the times. That is to say that today they would be cared for in a rest home rather than in an institution for the mentally ill. Sadly, those patients often found themselves mixed into a ward with patients who were mentally beyond any hope of improvement. In addition, none of the patients on these “senile” wards was given any treatment other than the most basic care for any physical ills they might exhibit.
Captain ________* was one of these. Captain ________ was an old sea captain who had spent his life sailing ships. What brought him to this mental hospital to spend his final years I don’t know. He was a nice old man, still wearing a seaman’s cap and usually smoking a corn cob pipe. He was now totally blind and spent his days sitting in the “Day Room” on a wooden rocking chair. Also, long ago, he had lost the lower part of his left leg and he had a wooden leg that was secured by a long black belt across his shoulder. I took the liberty once of making a small sketch of the Captain.
During this time MSIII suffered an infestation of bed bugs. Since all the patients slept in one large dormitory room the infestation soon spread to most or all of the beds. Patients were suffering painful bites and welts over their bodies, so we immediately called for the hospital extermination service. The exterminators came and closed off the sleeping dormitory and fumigated it thoroughly. In a few days, however, the infestation returned. So we called the exterminators back and they repeated the process with a little more intensity. This helped for a while but then the bed bugs once again returned. The exterminators were perplexed and could not account for their repeated failures.
After the last unsuccessful effort to eradicate this terrible scourge, someone happened to look at Captain _______ peg leg. Lo and behold, there was the answer! The Captain’s wooden leg was split from top to bottom, and that crevice was literally filled with bed bugs, They came in and out of the dormitory room with the Captain. He carried them out in his wooden leg while the exterminators sealed off and fumigated the room and all the beds, and when he returned at night to go to bed they returned with him. Bed bugs, of course, work exclusively on the night shift, and they soon learned that when the Captain took off his leg and clunked it down on the floor and the lights went out, it was time for them to go to work. The Captain, being blind, of course never saw them, and they had their own little dormitory space where they could sleep all day, safe from the lethal sprays and fumes of the exterminators. So, once Captain ________ prosthesis was properly cleansed to rid him of the dreaded and dastardly vermin, life on MSIII returned again to its own unique version of normal disorder.
June 10, 2011
*name withheld to protect confidentiality