Can’t You Smell That Smell?

When I was a young police officer, I was sent to check on a homeless person who was reported to have died on a bench outside the theater arts building. I found him lying on the bench, but saw, almost immediately, that he was breathing.


I woke him and asked him how he was doing and we had a short discussion, mostly so that I could determine what to do with him. I asked him where he was planning to go next and he said that he had had to sit down because his feet were hurting. I said, “Oh, what’s wrong with your feet?”

“I don’t know.”

I saw that there was a blackish fluid leaking from his shoe, so I encouraged him to take his shoe off so that we could see if he needed medical attention for his feet. I had to help him get the shoe off, because he was having difficulty, but I was wearing gloves so I didn’t think there would be a problem.

The smell hit me as if it was a physical force and almost knocked me down. My eyes watered and I gagged. His foot was bright pink with black nails and had a blackish liquid oozing from cracks in his heel. I excused myself and walked to a spot about thirty feet away, five feet past the end of the odor, and called for paramedics to respond. As my brain began to receive oxygen again, I realized that the man was probably diabetic and his feet had filled with gangrene from some infection that he had never sought help for.

When the paramedics arrived, they asked where the patient was and I pointed. They looked at me oddly, like, “Why are you standing way over here?”

They started walking toward the man, but reached an invisible line that stopped them in their tracks. They looked back at me again, this time like “You could have warned us,” and went back to the ambulance to get masks and something that they sprayed in them, then went to work.

Ultimately, the man was taken to the county hospital, but I found him on campus just a couple of weeks later. I asked him how his trip to the Emergency Room had gone. He was very agitated and explained,

They were going to cut my legs off, so I left!

You didn’t let them treat you? I asked.

Hell, no! Didn’t you hear me? They were going to cut my legs off! (Released against medical advice.)

The transit police found him a couple of weeks later, dead on a bus bench.

Now, anytime I smell something significantly bad, I have flashbacks to him.

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