Of Men and Maggots
J. Scott Ries, MD
“Please not Room 12. Anything but Room 12!” More a hope than a prayer, it was the instinctual
response to an unwelcomed page in the middle of the night, just as I hit the on-call room bed. An intern
in the middle of a 36-hour shift, I had finished an unrelenting string of admissions from the Emergency
Room during that day and evening, and I was hoping for just a few moments of respite before the next
Groping for my pager in the dark, I rationalized that a call from the wards with a lab result would be
better than another trip to the ER. Surely it couldn’t be another admission already! I had just checked
the ER board before making the trek to the call rooms and discerned no imminent admissions. But if it
was an admission, I desperately hoped it would not be from Room 12. Room 12, after all, was the
isolation room. Bad things lurked in Room 12.
Seconds after I dialed the familiar extension glowing in the pager’s LED light, the ER secretary brusquely
confirmed my angst with just two words, “Room 12.” Click.
As I approached the ER, my gaze roamed past the rooms and the nurse’s station before landing on Room
12. The closed door was a bad sign. Even worse was what hit me as I opened the door and stepped into
the room. The smell. Like a ton of bricks hitting the pavement from a ten-story fall, the overwhelming
smell of rot, filth and excrement stole my breath. My eyes fell to the gurney revealing a mound of
swollen flesh barely recognizable as human. I brushed flies away from my face before I realized the
oddity of discovering them in this reverse ventilation isolation room.
The EMS report told the story. More than two weeks prior, this gentleman had stumbled onto his front
porch in a drunken stupor and laid down on his couch. He had consumed the Big Macs and beer brought
to him by his “friends,” ultimately drinking himself into his current coma. He had not moved from his
couch in two weeks, not even to relieve himself. Eventually the stench became so bad the neighbors
called the police which resulted in his trip to the ER and now Room 12.
Unresponsive, with distant heart sounds, minimal respiratory ventilation and profound anasarca, he was
barely clinging to life. Examining him more closely, I discovered that he was also teeming with maggots.
Those small, white, squiggling creatures were crawling from literally every orifice on his body.
Determining it was a futile effort, I dutifully did my best to stabilize him and then wrote orders for his
transfer to the ICU, including a “bath” in acetone to eliminate his maggot infestation.
There were a number of remarkable things about this man, but the most prominent was his smell.
Unmistakable. Unavoidable. Do you realize that you smell too? You smell because God says you do.
Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 2:14-16:
“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us
spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of
Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To one we are the smell
of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.”
When is the last time you thought about how you smell…in a spiritual sense? We think of our smells
each day as we shower and apply deodorants and other fragrances. But what about our spiritual aroma?
We can probably distinguish between others-centered smells (joy, patience, love, kindness,
thoughtfulness and mercy) and self-centered smells (bitterness, anger, frustration, impatience and
discord) in others with little difficulty; but how often do we do a diagnostic check of our own aroma?
What fragrance are we emanating when:
We are stuck in line at the grocery with the slowest checkout clerk of all time?
Someone carelessly cuts right in front of us on the highway?
Another parent criticizes our child on the ball field?
A colleague unjustly accuses us of wrongdoing to the medical staff?
Someone has the audacity to interrupt our very busy schedule with a personal need?
What do we smell like then?
“We are to God the aroma of Christ”
Science recognizes the power of smells relating to memory. Corporate America has recognized the
importance of using fragrance in its marketing plans, now formalized as “Scent Marketing.” Realtors
advise us to bake cookies or bread to fill our home with a comforting aroma to entice the buyer. But
Scripture reminds us we bear a fragrance of eternal value, the fragrance of Christ himself.
The gospel of Jesus Christ has the most fragrant, sweet smell one can imagine. It is the smell of the gift
of God himself. Some choose to reject the “fragrance of life” and choose death instead. The “maggot
man” had the unmistakable smell of death. However, to those who love Jesus, that same aroma of the
gospel is better than the finest rose.
What fragrance are we wearing? We may not know whether the next patient, the orderly cleaning the
O.R., the new colleague on the medical staff or the anxious parents beside their child’s bedside is in the
“being saved” or “perishing” category. But we do know that we are God’s aroma to them.
The Smell of Victory
“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads
everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.”
In the time of Christ when a general was victorious in battle, runners would precede him back to the city
with the good news. People would line the streets, burning spices and incense, allowing the fragrant
aroma to waft through the town. As they smelled the sweet aroma, others would realize their general
was victorious and soon the streets would be full with jubilant supporters applauding and cheering their
general. The soldiers marched home in line behind their victorious leader. The excitement and
celebration would be bathed in the “sweet smell of victory.”
The imagery of the passage in 2 Corinthians is powerful. We are in a spiritual battle, but the victory has
been won! With Christ as our victorious leader, we are in triumphal procession; however, in this case we
don’t have to burn incense to spread the good news. Rather, God has chosen us to be the very fragrance
of Jesus himself to this world. We are the fragrance of Him!
A New Smell
The rest of the night following my maggot-infested patient’s admission to the ICU was busy with other
admissions through the ER. As I made my way to the ICU some hours later to do my morning rounds, I
presumed it would be easy to sniff out his location. However, after two passes through the ICU, I
smelled neither the familiar stench of earlier that morning nor the scent of acetone. Nor were any flies
detectable in any of the rooms.
After being enlightened by the astute nurses of the morning shift, I stepped into his room. Once again, I
was met with an overpowering blast of smell. Only this time it was different. This time the unmistakable
aroma was one of cleanliness, like the smell of a freshly bathed baby.
The nurse attending to him had spent the entire night ministering to this comatose gentleman. Not only
had she eradicated all of the maggots with acetone, she had bathed him several times to remove all
scent of that aromatic compound. His hair had been shampooed and even trimmed. His finger and toe
nails, once black with grime, now were clipped and clean. The beard caked with McDonald’s remnants
that I had pushed aside during his difficult exam now gave way to a smoothly shaven face. Here he was,
lying in clean gown and linens, not recognizable as the same person.
This nurse had devoted her entire shift to restoring to this man the dignity of a person created in the
image of God. The transformation that had taken place was profound. When I inquired of the other
nurses who had provided this man’s care during the night, none knew her identity. I never saw that
nurse again. An angel? Only God knows. What I do know is that morning I was smelling the aroma of
What Fragrance Are You Wearing?
How can we be spread the fragrance of Christ each day in our homes, practices and communities? Here
are just a few ways.
1. Grow as a disciple of Jesus. Yes, we are busier than ever, but unless we are intentional with time
in the Word and in prayer, our smell will quickly stagnate. Be a disciple maker as well. Helping
others mature in their faith will strengthen yours.
2. Pray for and with your patients. More than 80 percent of patients express a desire for their
physician to be sensitive to their spiritual needs. Look for opportunities to sensitively inquire of
their permission to pray with them. Then just watch how God will open the doors.
3. View medicine as a calling, not just a career. Have you consecrated your practice to God as your
ministry? You can be God’s agent of restoration in health, relationships and faith in the lives of
your patients, staff and even colleagues. Your aroma will be welcomed as you view others as
God does. He has placed you in this place, at this time, for His reason—your day is full of divine
4. Be a servant. We give orders well, but how well do we serve those around us? Can we honestly
say that we would not ask a member of our staff to do something we ourselves wouldn’t do?
Take a risk—let your staff witness you cleaning up the next time you encounter a bodily mess
left by a patient. The smell your staff encounters will likely change dramatically!
5. Use your talents to care for the poor. Part of Christ’s attractive fragrance was His love and
concern for the poor. If we want to truly smell like Jesus, we should give of our time to meet the
needs of the poor and underinsured. Whether domestic or international, opportunities to
spread His fragrance abound.
You may be wondering about the outcome of the man of maggots. Did he live? No. But that’s not the
point. You would be thinking just like I was on that long night on call. Focused on what I could do to save
the physical life of my patient, I had missed the invitation God had given me to love him as Christ would.
Thankfully, the nurse answered that call and simultaneously taught a valuable lesson to this intern.
Each day we are given the opportunity by the One who leads us in triumphal procession to be the aroma
of Christ. I don’t know what tomorrow will hold for you, but I do know this: God wants to spread His
fragrance through you.