It was from one of her few friends she hadn’t alienated. “Please go downstairs and check on her,” she begged me. “I think she is dying! And she won’t go to the emergency room!”
There was no answer when I knocked downstairs so I let myself in. Her apartment was worse than I had ever seen it before. Stepping over animal feces, I followed the sound of moaning to my landlady’s bedroom, where I found her sprawled on a pile of trash, with several mangy cats roaming over her body. She was grasping her abdomen, which was swollen and looked like it was going to burst. In the dim light from a spartan naked bulb, I could actually see roaches and spiders crawling over the mass.
My landlady was clearly in pain but didn’t want to go to the ER. She had not been to a doctor or taken any western medicine in 41 years. I suspected she was on the verge of dying and insisted she go. She refused. Our argument grew heated, and I called her friend and described what I was seeing. My landlady became terrified that I would call 911 and that paramedics might see inside her house; it was then that I realized I was one of very few people who had been in her home in a long time.
We compromised: a friend agreed to drive us to an urgent care facility. The car ride was traumatic – she moaned like a dying animal, screaming that she would never go to an ER. But when the urgent care physician quickly recognized that she was was within hours of dying, they threw her in an ambulance for the nearest hospital.
Having not been to a doctor in four decades, she had no insurance nor medical history to help the medical staff. The doctors quickly diagnosed her with a condition which, if not treated, can kill someone – and she’d already been having symptoms for a day and a half, hoping chanting and herbal tea would fix it.
I decided to postpone a surgery I was supposed to have myself to attend to her instead. She was hooked up to a ventilator and had a tube shoved down her throat. Unable to talk, she wrote on a pad that she wanted me to be her healthcare proxy and I accepted. What followed was a terrible meeting with her, a patient advocate, and the hospital attorney to go over her end-of-life and do-not-resuscitate directives.
Eventually I tracked down her estranged brother in the midwest, who had no interest in coming to help. So over the course of a week, her friend and I held ice to her forehead and dabbed moisture on her lips to try to keep her mouth from drying out. For days on end, fever racked her body, and infection threatened to kill her.
I worried constantly about her and, selfishly, also worried about what was going to happen to me. Long term, she’d left no will and had no heirs, so I could be out on the street. Short term, it was winter, the oil was almost out of the furnace, and I had to figure out how to pay for a new delivery.
The hospital’s social worker had begun to assess her case, too. My landlady was facing weeks in the hospital and months of recovery: did she have a caretaker and a safe environment? Her friend and I bluntly told the social worker that the house was a biological hazard. Between the animals, the feces and the bugs, the house would kill her.
I immediately took the dog to a vet, who explained that Maple Mandy needed to be dewormed, that he was probably living in a vermin-infested home, and that there was no point in taking him back to that environment until it had been fumigated. I slapped my credit card down to board him and get him human-priced treatments at the animal hospital – then went to see my landlady at the human hospital.
Fortunately, the social worker had just been to visit and had put the fear of God in her. Given her age, the social worker had explained, and given she had no family to care for her, the hospital would have to do a home inspection before she would be released. If it was as bad as it had been described to her, the social worker said, my landlady might be deemed unable to care for herself. Animal Control could remove her pets and she could be placed in a city facility.
This news had snapped my landlady into a rare moment of clarity.
“I can’t believe I let the house get that bad,” she said. “I knew it was bad, but I can’t believe I didn’t see how bad it really was.”
I seized the moment for an intervention. I told her that she was abusing her animals through neglect. That they were filled with worms. That I couldn’t let her go back there.
And then she begged me: “I’ll give you the money,” she said. “You’ve got to get the house professionally cleaned, before they inspect it so I can go home.”
She gave me a few thousand dollars, told me to call someone in her church to help hire cleaners, and said, “The house has to be clean.”
I went about it, with the help of about a dozen paid professionals who said it was the most disgusting apartment they had ever cleaned. Everyone wore gloves, goggles and masks.
Despite all those cats, there was an infestation of mice between the floorboards, along with fleas, roaches, spiders and spider eggs. We started with one of two fumigations. We then took all items that could be salvaged (papers, jewelry, books, utensils, tools) and put them in clear plastic 30 gallon bags so that my landlady could sort them and put them away when she returned. There were about 100 of these bags.
Everything cloth had to be sent to an industrial cleaner for washing; much of it had to be run through twice. I personally picked up all the cloth from the floor, and I filled some 30 gallon bags, weighing about 1,500lb in total.
But perhaps the most horrid place was the kitchen. There were hundreds of roaches inside the refrigerator. There were moths and mice feces in dry food containers. There were canned goods that were more than 10 years past their expiration dates. Her box of teas (which, I’m afraid, I had been served from) was crawling with bugs. Many of her cooking utensils were caked with rust. She had been cooking meals for the homeless once a month from that kitchen, and I wondered what kinds of rancid food those poor people had been subjected to.
Many disgusting items were hidden from sight. If a chair was peed on by a cat, a sheet would be thrown over it. If another cat vomited on that sheet, another sheet would be thrown on top of it. Then another. It wasn’t unusual to find 10, 15 layers of cloth on any given surface.
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