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Bug Bedlam! Denver's bedbug infestation one of the worst in the U.S.

Sandy McDonald is 48 years old, a former hospital phlebotomist now receiving disability due to a herniated disc at the base of her skull. Until recently, she and the youngest of her three daughters, who's seventeen, lived in a garden-level two-bedroom apartment in the Montclair neighborhood. From the outside, the apartment complex is handsome. Advertised as offering "a luxury lifestyle at an affordable price," its two-tone buildings resemble ski lodges. But inside, McDonald's apartment was unremarkable: beige carpeting, white walls and a tiny shotgun kitchen with a leaky dishwasher.

And, starting in June of last year, bedbugs.

The first bite McDonald noticed was on the top of her left foot. It was big, puffy and purple-ish. It itched twice as bad as a mosquito bite, and before long, it began to ooze. McDonald thought it was a spider bite; she'd been bitten once by a brown recluse in Arkansas, where she'd grown up. She'd reacted severely to that bite and figured this might be the same thing. "I waited a while and I tried to pamper it," McDonald says. But it didn't get any better. Soon, oozing welts were creeping up her left leg and onto her back.

Eight months later, the pattern of bites is still discernable. She pushes up the sleeves of her snowflake pajamas to reveal dark black circles that dot her arms like paint splatters. There are more on her shins, neck and chest. Sliding her left foot out of a well-worn navy-blue slipper, she points to the scar of the bite that started it all.

"I finally decided I needed to go to the doctor," says McDonald, who has since moved to a different apartment. Her doctor diagnosed her with shingles, a blistering skin rash that generally affects one side of the body, and prescribed her an antibiotic. She took the entire dose, but her bites didn't fade. So she saw another doctor, who said it was a skin infection and prescribed ointment.

When that didn't work either, her doctor asked if McDonald might have bedbugs. She hadn't seen any bugs or felt any bites, so she said no. "This was the first time the word 'bedbugs' had been mentioned," she says.

The second time came soon after. McDonald's sister had been hanging out at McDonald's apartment every day and began getting red bites on her body. McDonald says her sister figured they were mosquito bites, but she made a doctor's appointment to be sure. The bites weren't from mosquitoes, the doctor said. They were from bedbugs.

McDonald panicked. She called the apartment manager and asked for an exterminator. But she says she was told it would be two weeks. By that time, McDonald says, "I'm looking horrible. I'm looking like an AIDS-infested, ate-up person." She couldn't eat. And she certainly couldn't sleep. She started camping out on her couch and conducting middle-of-the-night bedbug raids in her bedroom, snatching off her sheets and inspecting every inch of her mattress and box spring for insects. She didn't find anything.

In late summer, an exterminator finally came to her apartment. With a high-powered flashlight, he searched her darkened bedroom for bedbugs but found nothing. "At this point, I just want to die," McDonald says.

She made an appointment with a dermatologist and implored the company that managed her apartment complex to hire another exterminator for a second opinion. They did, and that exterminator found what the other hadn't: a single bedbug.

"When the guy showed me the one bedbug, I immediately felt like there were a million tiny bugs all over me," McDonald says. "I cried."

Despite McDonald's uncommonly severe reaction to the bites, the exterminator determined that it was a mild infestation, and the management company paid for the spraying. "We take seriously any pest-control complaints we receive," says Brenda Wright, vice president of Utah-based Apartment Management Consultants, which runs 39 properties in Colorado, including the one where McDonald lived, in an e-mail. "We investigate those complaints immediately and act quickly to remediate the issue when warranted. If it is determined that a pest-control issue is valid, we immediately contact an exterminator."

But a few weeks after the exterminator sprayed, McDonald says she saw another bedbug crawling on the side of her king-sized mattress. She asked the manager to schedule another spraying; when they hesitated, she called the city's 311 Help Center.

Denver's bedbug infestation is said to be one of the worst in the nation. Last summer, pest-control giant Terminix ranked the city's problem No. 6 in the country based on the volume of calls to its offices. Meanwhile, Orkin ranked Denver No. 4, behind only Chicago and the Ohio cities of Columbus and Cincinnati. By Orkin's calculation, New York City -- commonly thought of as the bastion of the modern-day bedbug -- was No. 7.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar