I was around 11 years old when I first heard of parasites. I learned about tapeworms in sixth grade, and they were nothing like the fat, comical ones the inhabited the sidewalks of the ground after a rainy day. I would see those earthworms wriggling about on the cement, as if trying to get my attention, and I would pause on my walk home from school and toe them back to the grass where they belonged. But these tapeworms, I learned, lived inside of us, eating the same food that we ate. If they got big enough, they made us sick. They were nothing like their harmless cousins. It was a very unsettling realization for me that something alive could be living inside of me, let alone without my permission; so much so that I never stopped to help another earthworm again. I just couldn’t look at them the same way.
Around that time, I made the mistake of coming to the conclusion that tapeworms were the only things that parasitized humans. Learning about them was horrible enough to my younger self, so I suppose I just got the idea into my head that nothing worse than them could possibly exist. Now that we are in the middle of the parasitology unit in our Medical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases class, it seems that 12 years of denial are finally catching up with me.
Perhaps there is nothing as strange as coming to the realization that you are food. Bacteria and fungi certainly live in and on you, and maybe a parasite or two as well. What are they doing? Who is keeping an eye on them? And what exactly is keeping them alive, food-wise? I have since learned the answers to those questions, and for the longest time they have kept me up at night. But in the end, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m being colonized by bacteria as I write this, and taking fungi into my lungs with every breath. It only makes sense now to think of them as tenants in the very complex house that is my body.
I’ve tried explaining this insight to my non-medical school friends, but they, like my old self, demonstrate a reluctance to listen. “Did you know,” I asked one of my friends during dinner, “that 1.3 billion people in this world are currently infected by a type of intestinal worm?”
My friend looked at me and frowned. “But I’m eating right now,” she said. “… or I was.”
I looked at the chicken tenders that she had stopped consuming. “You may have a point,” I said, “Ascaris lumbricoides can occur in the Southeastern United States. But I think the people who handled your food practiced appropriate sanitation measures.” I then went on to mention a few opportunistic fungi I had learned about that day.
My friend eventually rested her chin on her hand and said sadly, “Hearing all of this just makes me want to run away.”
I thought about that for a moment. “Well, you can’t run away from fungi. Or parasites,” I said. “They’re everywhere.”
“I don’t want to run away from the fungi or the parasites or the bacteria,” she said. “I want to run away from the knowledge of them.”
I was struck by how much that sounded like my younger self. Perhaps she, like I, was in a way coming to terms with her own mortality.
In one of my favorite short stories, called, “The Monster Mash,” the author David Sedaris describes very cleverly the truth behind what happens to someone when they begin to acknowledge the boundaries of their mortal selves. For him, it came from working at a medical examiner’s office and learning about death. In the story, he writes that “Citizens were disemboweled, one right after the other, and on the surface I’m sure I seemed fine with it. Then at night I’d return to my hotel, double-lock the door, and stand under the shower until all the soap and shampoo were used up” (Sedaris 110). I could relate; after learning about all of the secondary bacterial infections you can get after a viral infection weakens your immune system, I spent the majority of my time avoiding people, afraid of getting even the slightest cold. I wanted my immune system as intact as possible because what else would keep all of the deadly microorganisms in check? As each day passed, I learned about infections that I never wanted to have; especially ones that were particular to health care providers. As Sedaris puts it, “This was the consequence of seeing too much and understanding the horrible truth: No one is safe. The world is not manageable” (Sedaris 115).
Of course, eventually I learned to lighten up and accept that the world that I live in is a complex and uncertain place. That’s kind of what makes life exciting. There is no point in worrying about what could and could not happen in the future. You just have to take life for what it is and take it as it comes, bugs and all.
Sedaris, David. “The Monster Mash.” When You Are Engulfed in Flames. New York: New York, 2008. 109–116. Print.