Medical Examiner

The Scariest Campfire Story

More horrifying than bears, snakes, or hook-handed killers.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

We’d had a great day. We’d roasted hot dogs and s’mores over the campfire and tucked our kids in their sleeping bags in the tent. Over one last cocktail by the light of the moon, my husband and I congratulated ourselves on a dreamy day in the Adirondack Mountains. We crawled into the tent, our sleeping bags sandwiching the kids, and slept.

The first stab shocked me awake. I screamed. It happened again—a knife in the side of my head, followed by a thundering crackling, as though a giant paper bag were being balled up inside my head. Then more stabbing. I screamed and screamed as my husband—wondering if I’d lost my mind, he later told me—pulled me from the tent, away from our kids. I begged for him to wake me up from my nightmare, to make it stop. I wailed as I grabbed the side of my head. We both realized there was something in my ear. Something was biting or stinging or boring into my eardrum.

I’ve given birth twice; as a kid I snapped my ankle in half and had an ice-skate blade slice my chin open—things that hurt a lot. But this pain was a full-body shock from my toes to my temples; with every stab I saw a flash of light. For 20 minutes while my husband tried frantically to find a Q-tip (totally ridiculous in retrospect) and calm the kids and me, the thing in my ear assaulted me.

We were in deep woods, about half a mile from a dirt road that, 10 miles later, connects with a country road that, 30 miles later, connects with a highway that, 20 miles later, leads to a reasonably sized hospital. We’d picked our campsite because I was reluctant to go for the original plan—a boat-access-only site even farther in the backcountry. Two years ago our little boy was diagnosed with a medical condition and we hadn’t camped since. For our first trip out, I wanted access to our car, just in case. I never suspected I’d be the one who needed an emergency room.

I don’t remember much about the drive. The kids slept. My husband kept me calm. Blood and other fluid trickled from my ear. At the hospital, well after midnight by then, my husband stayed in the car with the sleeping kids. The doctor who finally saw me irrigated my ear and poured in a solution to numb the pain and kill the bug, if it was still alive. My eardrum was so inflamed it was unclear, he told me, what was eardrum and what was bug. He sent me home because there was nothing more he could do before the swelling subsided, and he didn’t want to permanently damage my hearing.

The next morning my family and I headed to Vermont, where there’s a bigger, better hospital. The pain in my ear was intense. I’d lost my hearing, and the skin around my eye on the bug-ear side of my face was numb.

At the ER, the doctors again irrigated my ear and gave me drops to ease the pain. They saw a leg, they reported, but couldn’t do anything. I needed a specialist who had the proper equipment to handle something like this. They sent me home.

Two days later I returned to that hospital to see an otolaryngologist (an expert in all things ear, nose, and throat). These specialists see plenty of foreign bodies in ear canals, but according to the two doctors I met in the examining room, these are mostly beads in little kids’ ears. They peered into my ear with an operating microscope. I recall one of the doctors saying, “It’s a bug. It’s big.”

The day before, at the magazine where I work, my colleagues and I speculated about just what was in there: wasp? Spider? Ant? Earwig? A writer friend who’s also a naturalist stopped by the office and threw in his bet: wood-boring beetle.

He won.

What the otolaryngologists pulled from my ear was slightly larger than a Japanese beetle—same shape, but dull brown, no metallic body shell. A scarab. I was horrified.

I was assured that my eardrum would be fine. Turns out that eardrums, as thin as they are, are resilient. Even after damage or rips, they can heal in days. And the doctors explained why just the slightest tap to the inner ear is so painful: The ear canal is innervated by four cranial nerves, all of which relay sensory information to the brain. It’s sensory overload if something even slightly irritates that teensy patch of skin.

One of the otolaryngologists advised that, if this were to happen again—what are the chances?—I fill my ear with oil (baby, mineral, vegetable, olive) to smother and kill the bug. No oil? Water or a 50/50 mixture of water and alcohol or water and peroxide would work. Sometimes you can grab the bug with tweezers, he said, but there’s a danger you’ll push it in farther; plus, if you don’t get it all, you’ll need medical attention anyway.

I was sent on my way with my beetle in a plastic case. I threw it in the trash. An accurate ID from an entomologist would have been super, but carrying the thing—stinky at this point—was beyond disturbing for me. When I later described the bug to an expert, he could only confirm that it was a scarab. I asked him how it could have shredded my eardrum. “They do not bite,” he explained. “Any damage had to be done with its legs and claws. A large scarab is capable of lifting 50 times its weight.”

During my trips to the emergency rooms, I had asked the doctors who worked on me if they’d ever pulled bugs from ears. Two said that during residencies in New York City they had yanked cockroaches from ear canals. One recalled a roach that, after he tugged it a bit, flew up out of the ear and over his head. Apparently in Vermont it’s not uncommon for moths to get wedged in there.

But none of that really matters. Wherever I camp next, I’m wearing earplugs.