Silent Scream

Mute and immobile, Alice Joy Taylor couldn't cry out when fire ants attacked her in her nursing-home bed, but would anyone have heard her if she did?

The only bad thing the general public has ever heard about Cross Timbers is a 1997 report that the home lost its Medicaid certification because of "recurring health-code violations." A story published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the time said that "none of the violations posed imminent threats to the patients' health or safety." The article quoted a director as saying Cross Timbers is the "most high-class home in the state of Texas...This is a palace. Our residents are happy here." The Star-Telegramreported that the problems included such things as nurses' failing to be properly licensed, dirty utensils, and an employee who didn't wash his hands after sneezing. A month later, the paper reported that the home was recertified after its operators had fixed all the problems and received a "perfect score" on a state inspection.

Things at the home were less than perfect a year later, two days after Taylor was attacked. On that day in late July 1998, a resident sat in street clothes in a wheelchair in the hall. He had a heavy growth of beard and was asked if he would like a shave.

"Do anything you'd like to do" he said. "I'll be looking like Santa Claus pretty soon."

Lewisville resident Carolyn Osborn cried after her helpless mother was attacked by fire ants in a nursing home. She's fighting back, she says, so that other nursing home residents aren't subjected to similar fates.
Lewisville resident Carolyn Osborn cried after her helpless mother was attacked by fire ants in a nursing home. She's fighting back, she says, so that other nursing home residents aren't subjected to similar fates.
Lewisville resident Carolyn Osborn cried after her helpless mother was attacked by fire ants in a nursing home. She's fighting back, she says, so that other nursing home residents aren't subjected to similar fates.
Peter Calvin photos
Lewisville resident Carolyn Osborn cried after her helpless mother was attacked by fire ants in a nursing home. She's fighting back, she says, so that other nursing home residents aren't subjected to similar fates.

Other residents had long, jagged fingernails with "dried brown substance" under them, and one had "a foul odor to both hands." One resident hadn't been showered for a week and, on this particular day, another was still in her pajamas at noon.

After breakfast that day, the elderly residents were wheeled from the dining room to the front of the nurses' station. They stayed there. One woman had large pieces of scrambled eggs on her face and chest. Others had dried food on their clothes.

Then there were the ants. Workers told state officials that fire ants had been inside Cross Timbers as early as June 10. Several rooms were treated for ants, but by the first week of July the staff knew they had a serious problem. When staff members ran out of pesticides, they sprayed ants with Right Guard deodorant, they told state workers.

By July 21, fire ants were massing in colonies outside the Cross Timbers Care Center, and they were coming inside for food and drink. They were in the halls and offices. They were in the kitchen. They were in the dining room on the tables. They were in closets, patients' rooms, and in 16 of the home's 78 beds. A staff member picked up a lei from one of the resident's rooms and was about to smell it when he saw ants crawling from it. A resident says she pulled a pair of panties that was covered with ants from her drawer. They had taken over her drawer, she told a state worker.

Fire ants were on the patients. One nurse said that she saw a fire ant crawling on a resident's cheek and that a family member alerted a staff member after seeing fire ants on their relative's chair as she ate. Another resident, who had fire ants in her bed, had been bitten extensively on and under her left arm just three days before.


Although it has happened in nursing homes with fatal results, nobody has ever witnessed the process of a fire ant attack from start to finish on someone like Taylor, who can't move or cry out.

The way it works is this: A fire ant scout walks around looking for something to kill, drink, or carry back to the nest.

"Normally, what happens is you'll have a few ants come to a food source," says the USDA's Homer Collins. "Those in turn will pass the word, transfer a product we call pheromones, which is a chemical form of communication. What that form of communication says is, 'Hey, nest mates, come help me bring this food source back to the nest.'

"They may originally come into the room looking for food, and if there's food in the room, then the first workers will recruit others. You start off with a few, but as time goes by you can have hundreds or even thousands of crawling, foraging workers that enter the nursing home. It would take several hours for enough ants to be recruited to the room, and then all of the sudden they start stinging the victim."

In Joy Taylor's case, the ants were attracted to her legs, inner thighs, and groin.

"That would be an attractive area, where it has odors and potential things indicating maybe food or something for the ants, so they would be focusing on a place like that," Schmidt says. "Of course, that area has a lot of nerves.

"Your crotch area is not only more protected, but it also needs all kinds of sensory systems for its normal functions--reproduction among other things," he says. "You can well imagine that it's not going to feel very good."

No one knows at what time the ants started in on Taylor, so no one knows how long the attack lasted. But the evidence they left behind proved that the attack was intense. Just before 8 a.m., one of the staff members spotted ants on Taylor's bed. They pulled back the covers and saw ants and hundreds and hundreds of stings all over Taylor's legs, inner thighs, and on and inside her vagina. They took toilet tissue and began picking off the ants off and cleaning up the blood, tossing bloodied tissues on the floor. (Carolyn Osborn later found ants in blood-soaked tissues on the floor along the baseboard of her mother's bed.)

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