The Unwelcomed Visitor
Her response upon learning of my forthcoming marriage proposal broke my heart into a million decrepit pieces. In the four years we had been together we had crossed the world. I had seen her through nursing school and the day after graduation she had left. It was my first love, my only love and I couldn’t simply give up. So the night before my life inexorably changed was spent painting to fight for the love which I had crossed oceans for.
Bleary eyed I drove to work, but before doing so our cat needed to be delivered to my parents house. Suddenly my painting flew out of the window, and I ran to catch it as it tumbled in the wind. Having returned to the car the cat appeared in the rearview running up the side of the hill. In disbelief I chased after her. However it was in vain. Our cat was gone and I was in tears; an ominous sign.
That day passed in wretched fashion. Ten hours into my shift, survival had become a grueling battle of attrition, and that was when it happened. I felt a certain discomfort in my pants as though I had perhaps shat myself. That, in and of itself, presented a rather disquieting state of affairs, and this problem certainly had to be addressed. However, in the bathroom I was mortified to find out that it was not a problem of bowel control at all. It was something far more horrible. An entire lifetime of childhood nightmares became reality when I discovered that a worm was crawling its way out of myself. My hands desperately grabbed this monster, and I pulled but this thing broke in half. Eight inches of it fell to the ground and died writhing in front of my eyes. The rest left indecorously in excrement.
Horror, shock, revulsion and vomit filled my throat.
I was confused and, without clear knowledge of how to respond to such an manifestation, I somehow found the clarity of mind to collect the creature I had just given birth to so that I could show it to a doctor. I felt alone because I was working at a restaurant; people go there to eat and so I couldn’t really tell anyone what had just happened. But what had happened? Was it real? Had evil somehow materialized? There were five hours left in the shift, and I could now feel other worms. They were in my arms and legs; slithering through my stomach. Time passed in a nightmarish haze.
Finally my brothers came to give me a ride home, and I sat silently in the car attempting to formulate words. “Uhh. Hey. Umm,” I began stutteringly.
“What? What is it Rob?” my brother asked, puzzled by the way I was sort of nervously scratching myself.
“What’s the worst thing that can happen to a person? Because it’s happened.”
My brother froze and then remarkably he guessed it: “You have parasitic worms.”
Not knowing is the worst. It is unbearable. I was far far away from being okay, and so we searched the internet for answers and a return to normalcy. “That’s it! That is the demon!” I shouted when we found an image of my spawn. It was a roundworm; a pink strand about the diameter of an earthworm, and up to 12 inches long. It is the most common parasitic worm, and astonishingly almost two billion people worldwide suffer from intestinal worm infections. An even more tragic statistic is that the people most effected by this plague are children; vitamin and mineral deficiencies, the fact that worms often consume a third of people’s caloric intake, and weaken immune systems means that 300 million people are permanently disabled from untreated helminth (the technical word for parasitic worm) infections. Mental and physical development is seriously hampered and thus hundreds of millions of people will never grow to be their full size or reach their true and amazing potential. Pregnant women develop anemia and often bleed to death upon giving birth. And sadly the people affected are primarily the rural poor of developing nations, and so the global response to this plague are damningly insufficient, yet treatment is readily available, not costly and effective within 24 hours. Why does so much needless suffering exist when it does not have to? We race to find cures for AIDS and cancer, and devote enormous research to doing so, but why do we not implement the cures which we already have?
The end of the worst day of my life brought a tremendous breakthrough. I returned to my painting and it was then that God spoke to me. I was fortunate. I had suffered through a truly horrific experience, but I was going to be okay. I had suddenly become aware of one of the greatest causes of human suffering that exists. I had lived through the nightmare and had seen it with my own eyes. I could share my wealth, talents and experiences with my brothers and sisters in those poor countries where this horror is a daily reality. My heart filled with love and compassion. I would go to Central America to fight the parasitic worm plague.
Without sadness there cannot be happiness, just as without winter there cannot be spring. And so it was that I came to see the moment when I watched my “child” die on the floor of Smoky Mt. Pizza as a blessing. For I had given birth to a worm which in turn gave birth to a dream.
A month later I would travel to Mexico and then Central America, and I would use my trip as a way to effect positive change among people that deserved every opportunity to grow into who they were meant to become. You see the simple truth is that humans are better without parasites. It is unacceptable that our neighbors, brothers and sisters–which are the rural poor–struggle with extended bellies full of worms, lack of clean drinking water, malnutrition, stunted growth and death before their fifth birthdays while others in affluent nations worship a corrupt philosophy of petty materialism. I would draw the line in the sand, and say ‘No more!’
The next day I went to see the doctor. I gave him the worm which now was in a jar of alcohol and he was quite astonished to see the thing–as it is a rare thing in these northerly latitudes and in a place where access to potable water and sanitation combine to render such infections as something unknown. The doctor in fact paraded the specimen around the office to show it off before sending it to pathology. I was given antiparasitic medicine and a clean bill of health. And having been cured I acted quickly to bring assistance to my less fortunate counterparts in Latin America.
Two fundraisers yielded a modest sum of relief aid. Many friends were eager to help including engineers and healthcare workers. Contacts were established within the United Nations and other aid agencies, and I attached myself to a medical mission that would be traveling to Honduras. I reconciled with my girlfriend and we agreed to go to Honduras together. She would be a nurse and I would be a translator. They were the moments in which we would make our stand and the world would be different.
However as it turned out things would not be so easy.
The last time that I saw Shaundra was the day that I flew to Mexico City. I made her breakfast and gave her a shoulder massage while she looked over her notes for the final time before taking the NCLEX exam to become a Resident Nurse. I came to pick her up from the test, ran to her and picked her up in my arms. She thought that she had failed but I told her that it did not matter and I would love her forever. She saw me off at the airport and I waived until I finally lost sight of her.
I was in Mexico City for presidential elections, and then met my best friend, Rich, who is from Guadalajara. He introduced me to his family, including his step-father who is an environmental consultant and who agreed to help me in my charitable pursuits. We traveled for two weeks and ended up in Acapulco. An hour before saying goodbye to him (he was returning to the States and I was continuing south to meet my beloved and the medical team) I received an email from my now ex-girlfriend. She would not be meeting me after all. Her role was an integral part of the plan. Her medical expertise would have useful, and it would prove the capacity to be able to bring together professional people to carry out an international aid operation. The project was in jeopardy and I felt a lack of meaningful closure to a relationship which had been the most important thing in my life. Something drastic had to be done, and so I unleashed my yogic powers.
I began fasting. Without eating, and having spent two consecutive nights in bus stations I undertook the most difficult journey of my life. Feelings of loneliness, hunger and sleep deprivation were proving to be almost unbearable. However upon arrival in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico I attended mass. The faithful were primarily Mayan, and as I listened to the Cardinals homily about justice for poor nations I realized that I was understanding him. I could speak Spanish. This proved to be very fortifying and subsequently I took the money that I would normally have spent to buy food and gave it away to invalids, schools, churches or to I used it to buy food to give away to street children. At times I would lay down to sleep but be kept awake by irregular heart beats. Soon I was down to zero percent body fat, and knew hunger. Yet my soul burned and I felt strong.
For seven days I did not eat. I traveled 1,500 miles to arrive at the front lines of the fight against the parasitic worm plague. Although I’m not one for self promotion, my arrival in Macuelizo, Honduras was itself a victory of determination and the human spirit.
The Macuelizo Valley is a very poor region, yet it is full of wonderful and amazing people. Rates of prevalence of intestinal worm infections are 60- 70%. It is heart wrenching to see. I quickly made friends and after several days I moved out of the hotel and was given my own house to reside in–gratis. I worked as a translator for an American doctor. We made a good team, and would treat around forty people a day. I was very lucky with my timing because a program was about to start in which every child in primary and secondary schools would receive a multivitamin everyday and antiparasitic medicine twice a year. I was allowed to attend the meetings which finalized the scheme. In attendance were representatives from the ministries of health and education, municipal leaders and school superintendents. 55,000 children benefit from this program in 200 schools. It has received the attention of the first lady and is surrounded with a good deal of hope. It is the first of its kind in Central America.
The final thing I did before I left Macuelizo and bid goodbye to my new friends was that I burned the photos that I had of my ex-girlfriend and my love letters for her. I buried them with the engagement ring and the necklace that she carved from whale bone in New Zealand that I had worn continuously for three years. I did this in the central plaza under a palm tree, and then planted a flower on the spot so that my heart would always stay with those people.
Two weeks later I returned with my brother and a car. We took water samples and conducted an amateur water survey. Since returning to the United States fundraising has continued and last week I found out that my partners in Miami have received a grant. I will return to Honduras in January to install water purification systems in each of the 200 schools that are taking part in the vitamin program, and I finally feel that I am living up to my potential and much of it is thanks to the fact that I pulled a worm out of my ass.