Ooo…ooo…that smell

When the smell of carcass invades your home, days can seem like years.  This morning I couldn’t even eat breakfast at home. Nowhere was safe from the sickening sweet, bitter odor of rotting flesh.  The critter catchers came out today, opened up a bit of wall in the laundry room, and dragged out a dead vole.  A vole.  A freaking vole.  One of the smallest mammals in North America created one of the worst smells I’ve ever encountered—and I’m a physician, rather used to unpleasant smells.

Now that the little varmint is gone, I’m hoping a little airing-out will go a long way.  It’s harder though to scrub my brain clean of the strong olfactory memory.

Moving on…

I saw an older woman the other day, not in my capacity as a physician.  She was walking up a pedestrian ramp to a garage.  She must have weighed 400 lbs., looked unkempt, and probably didn’t smell very good.  She was moving one small shuffling step at a time, pushing her walker forward with an insensible slowness.  Inside I reacted with a bit of disgust: how could she let this happen to herself? It’s a natural defensive reaction, but I was ashamed.  I watched her moving, each step taking several seconds, moving her a couple of inches.  And I realized each step was also a small victory.  She wasn’t succumbing to her clearly disastrous health problems—she was fighting back one tiny step at a time.

In other news, Retraction Watch is reporting on an interesting case of delusional parasitosis (h/t @PharmacistScott).  In 1951 a journal published a self-report of an arthropod infestation of the scalp.  These mites were reported to be undetectable to all but the victim.  Retraction Watch discusses some of the ethics involved in publishing a case study with, by definition, irreproducible results. (It does seem crazy, unless it’s published in a journal that specializes in this, such as the intentionally-hilarious Journal of Irreproducible Results or the unintentionally-hilarious Medical Hypotheses).  In the 1950s, the editors of a non-medical journal may not have been cognizant of what today we would see as signs of obvious mental illness (and bad science).  I like to think that today we might do better, but even the CDC is being pulled down this rabbit hole.

I just hope that wherever the rabbit leads them, they don’t end up stuck in my laundry room wall.


  1. Yet sometimes you can have a small critter die in your home and never know it. Last year I had a mouse problem. At first I did the kind thing and used humane traps and released the mice into a field well away from my apartment building. Eventually it got to be too much and I went to spring traps and my landlords laid down poison. The thing is I apparently left some remnants of food in the humane trap when I abandoned using it and a mouse made it’s way inside and I never noticed. The poor little critter died and when I was cleaning the cupboard where the trap was several months later I found a withered mummified mouse in the trap. I’m guessing my cupboard is was a drier environment than inside your wall so it dessicated before rotting could set in.

  2. Karen

     /  December 21, 2011

    The smell of dead critter is a practical reason why you should never use inhumane poison. Not only does the critter die a dreadful death, but just might do so behind your wall. (Sticky traps also cause an inhumane death, though you can clean up the results.) Spring traps, people, spring traps; they’ll never know what hit ’em. I like the idea of humane traps, but if the root of the problem is rodent overpopulation, you can trap-and-release until you’re exhausted and their cousins will promptly move into the vacated premises.

    Even better, go around your building and make sure all your attic and basement/crawlspace vents are properly screened. We had rat problems only because the attic vent screens weren’t maintained. (We periodically have opossum problems because a cold, wet, pregnant, determined Mama Opossum can tear a crawlspace vent screen apart; we scare ’em out of the crawlspace when the young are old enough and reinforce the vent screens.)

  3. That CDC page FAQ is a masterpiece of “No, go talk to someone else.” They say they don’t know what causes it, they don’t know whether it’s contagious, they can’t provide medical care, and they can’t refer you more specifically than to suggest you consult a physician.

  4. Shirah

     /  December 22, 2011

    After so many years in the veterinary ED, I just don’t notice certain smells. (Or I just don’t feel the need to vomit after smelling them?) There is a VERY specific smell for necrotic tissue vs. necrotic tissue with maggots. I have bribed co-workers to take a patient for me, because the patient smelled like maggots + necrosis. Plain necrosis (sans maggots) is gross but manageable, smell wise. For some reason the maggots add another smell that’s even worse.

    But a rotting carcass in a warm location, like the wall? That definitely falls into the “Oh wow. Please make that smell go away, FAST. Pleaseohpleasemakeitgoaway!” category.

    Hope that rotting-vole-carcass smell clears quickly.
    And terrible smells aside, Chag Chanukah!!

  1. Aftermath « White Coat Underground
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