Mother’s Day and Ticks

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A few years ago, I wrote a story about the childhood event of finding a tick during the warm months of spring and summer.  The article was published in the Tennessean on Mother’s Day in 2005.  I got more e-mails from people I didn’t know telling me their tick stories. I still cannot think about ticks without thinking of my mother’s relentless pursuit of removing these pesky creatures.  And since it is getting warm outside and Mother’s Day is upon us, I’ve posted the piece in its entirety below.

 About this time every year, there’s a cry that swells up in households across the South.   “I found a tick!”  When I think about ticks, I think about my mother.  

Mothers hate ticks.  At least mine did.  I seemed to be the first child infested on our West Tennessee farm each year.  The finding of a tick would summon my mother from anywhere in the house while my older brother vied for an unobstructed view of the torture, an event for him of unequaled pleasure.  My father would remain calm in his recliner, only to enter the treatment plan if there was a large animal attached.

What followed was a very sophisticated, diagnostic question.  

Is it latched on or still crawling? 

This question was hardly necessary, however.  Crawling ticks were merely flicked off and never reported.  By the time my tick was discovered, it had been hunkered down for a day or two, maybe longer, somewhere on a thin strip of skin shaded only by undergarment. 

My mother’s method for tick extraction changed dramatically during my childhood.  She started out using Campho-Phenique, that WD-40 of all medical ointments, used on everything from ring worm to poison oak.  I can still remember the cooling sensation on the skin, like Vicks salve between your cheek and gum. 

The problem was that the tick liked it too and would hunker down even more.  This resulted in great angst and a gentle teasing-turned-to-yanking the tick out.  My mother would then examine the pathologic specimen and ask that universal prognostic question. 

Is the head on? 

You hoped and prayed that that small black nubbin was there, complete with a chunk of epidermis, because you surely didn’t want her going back for more.  It took only one missing-head tick to radically change her tick extraction method.

A new and improved technique illustrated an important scientific principle.  Ticks rapidly conduct heat.  Her recipe for the use of fire to remove ticks was as follows: (Please do not try this at home), 1) Strike a match, 2) Blow it out, 3) Immediately apply to tick.  I can still remember the burning ember coming perilously close to private parts while my brother foamed at the mouth with glee.  By the end of this ordeal, I could not have cared less where the head was.

Sixteen years ago, when I was a medical student in another city, a woman was transferred from a local nursing home to the hospital.  It was the first day of my Internal Medicine rotation.  She had a fever and was non-responsive, near comatose.  My superiors predicted it to be the last day of her ninety-one year life.  The usual sources of fever – urinary tract infection, pneumonia, etc, – were ruled out.  Then she was declared my patient.  Great.

Her history was brief since she couldn’t talk.  Her only son was in another state and did not answer the phone.  This left the physical exam for diagnosis.  In a small room with a nurse as chaperone, I examined her skin.  I listened to her heart, lungs, felt her neck, examined her back. 

“What are you looking for?” my bored, cross-armed nurse asked me. 

“I don’t know.”

I searched her legs, groin creases, raised her arms with webs of loose flesh hanging like draperies.

Then I saw them.

Deep in the left armpit, beneath a tuft of hair.

Three black spots.

Moles?  No.


Three juicy blood-filled ticks sucking the last days out of my sweet patient (we had bonded by that point).  With a pair of tweezers, I gently pulled them straight out (the appropriate method, no flames or potions needed), placed them in a specimen container, and with a satisfied grin told the nurse to send them to the lab for testing.  And yes, the heads were intact.

Three days after she was admitted, her fever had resolved.  She still couldn’t talk but her eyes tracked to those around her, enough improvement for a return trip to the nursing home.  I held the doors as the attendants pushed her in the elevator on a stretcher.  As she brushed by, she winked.  She had to use both eyes but she definitely winked at me, her tick-extracting surrogate son.  

As the doors closed, I had a deep desire to embrace that fragile skin around her neck.  Was it the ticks?  Who knows?  But I still think about her today.  And I appreciate my own mother’s burning diligence with those little blood-suckers.

So remember.  Check yourself for ticks.  There’s always a mother around, somewhere, when you need one.