Letters, Worms, and Missions

While reading Helaman Pratt’s Journal of his mission to Mexico in 1884, something struck a resonance within me.  It brought to the surface memories of my own mission and thoughts about the mission experience in general. 

Helaman Pratt was one of apostle Parley P. Pratt’s sons and was very important in the beginnings of the LDS Church in Mexico.  He writes:

FEB 7 –  Occupied the day in writing to Pres. Taylor and my family.

FEB 8 – Commenced to shake about 3 o’clock in the morning and was confined to the bed all day with chills and fever.  About 10 p.m. commenced to sweat which kept up until about 3 a.m.  My head was in a constant whirl all day.  In the afternoon some of the native brethren came in to visit me.

FEB 9    Felt very well but a little faint and weak, having eaten scarcely nothing since Wednesday.  In the afternoon I discovered that I had what is called a (nigna) in my right foot, that is a sting by a little animal or insect which about in the Tierra Caliente [hot country] from which in time there form a small sack about as big as a pea under the skin, which is full of little white eggs and if it is not extracted with great care to get all the eggs out, grow to be worms, many losing their foot.

FEB 10 –  Spent the day in reading.  My chills not having returned and my sting from the nigna beginning to heal nicely.  I have seen many of natives and Spaniards crippling around for months unable to wear a shoe and suffering great pain caused by the sting of these small but vicious insects, but I believe every egg was extracted from my foot.  Was sadly disappointed at not getting letters from home.

Framing his illness, Pratt announces he wrote to Church president John Taylor and his two wives. Three days later, after his body has been wracked by fevers and chills and he is feeling better, his illness is still the major theme of his writing, but he also notes not receiving letters from his family. 

I remember being a greenie in the dusty city of Oruro, Bolivia as well as someone almost ready to go home in the cold, thin aired city of Potosí, and how I would feel an excitement when receiving letters from home.  It was like something from a different world, but one which had an intense hold on my inside.   The mission demanded my time, my energy, most of my thoughts and I willingly, lovingly gave them.  But something inside lived every time a letter came.  When there was no letter, especially one time when the mails conspired and I went weeks without one, I walked in a cloud of worry.  Outside I was the same missionary, but inside I lived a storm of concern and a wavering self.

Especially when I was sick.  Up until I entered the Mission Home across from the Church Office Building in Salt Lake, where people went before they opened the LTM in Provo,  when I was sick, I was always safe in my own identity, in my bedroom, surrounded by things that guaranteed in moments of fever I could look out and have my self reflected back at me.  I lived in my family—my parents and brothers; I knew they were there and they would check  in on me all the time. 

In Bolivia, all of that had migrated from embracing me to being somewhere inside me, and had become a smaller part of my existence.  It was still an important part, but my days and much of my nights were spent with the gospel, my companions, and worrying about investigators, as well as learning to function in a culture that was a strange to me.

Once, on a P-day, while the other elders in my district were having a barbecue in the tropical town of Montero, I started to ache.  I laid down on another missionary’s bed and missed the whole barbecue.  The ride back to Sant Cruz, in a crowded minivan, felt like delirium.  Once in my room with my bed that was a thin mattress over plywood, I fell into sleep, even though I tossed and turned, sweated lakes, and felt like I was freezing—odd when the temperature outside was almost always around 90 degrees.  My body hurt. My head hurt.  And I slept.   For a week, I slept. 

I know at some points I got up, drank water, and used the bathroom.  But mostly I slept.  Until, a week later, suddenly I felt better and got up.  I was weak and much thinner. My companion and the family we lived with looked at me as if I were some sort of ghost.  For a week they did not know what to do with me as I moaned and slept. 

It’s an odd memory.  But it fits with stories I heard from other missionaries, from the time I arrived in the mission field, of dangers and sicknesses.  I learned of a missionary who got an amoeba and then had to wrap his pants half way around his body and cinch them with a new, much smaller belt, so they would stay up.  They told me of a sister who had a spider lay eggs in her foot, but did not know it.  Her foot became huge, and one day hundreds of little spiders broke out of it as it returned to normal.  We lived in the lowlands with huge cockroaches, spiders, and all kinds of stinging insects, including the dreaded binchuca beetle which carries chagas disease and in the highlands with parasites and lots of strange viruses and bacteria, including tuberculosis.

The stories and the reality of just falling sick any given day, from something you ate, from a virus, or from some strange insect gave power to the mission.  Even though, at moments like that, you might long to be back in your room, with your family around, you had the mission.  It loomed even larger in your existence and psyche because of the dangers. 

I was no Helaman Pratt, and my Bolivia was not his absolutely fascinating late nineteenth century Mexico.  I never had parasites nor worms in my feet, although I saw people with them.  But this little snippet from his journal brought back deep memories of illness while on the mission, how strong the day-to-day mission life is, and yet, how important those connections to self and family were anyday, but especially when I had been sick.   Together, they help explain existentially how a mission can be such a powerful experience.  


  1. Pratt’s problem sounds like botfly larvae. always makes you feel grand when you’re visibly a slab of meat to the natural world. Chagas disease is usually carried by the reduviid bug. Is the binchuca beetle the local name for reduviid bug?

    One of my most vivid memories was of administering blessings of healing to marginalized groups on their deathbeds while a missionary.

    You’re right, though, the mission has a way of aggrandizing even minor illness, probably in a good way at the time.

  2. Gerald Smith says:

    My first area of my mission was Potosi, Bolivia in Feb 1979. I recall my first companion, Rick Pace, suggest as we were each drinking a bag of milk that perhaps we shouldn’t drink it, as it was the cause for him having typhoid (IIRC).
    He later went back to the States early, and finished in Pennsylvania, due to illness.
    Dysentery was a very common illness. The joke was that if you didn’t have it at least once a month, there was something wrong with you.
    As for the botfly larvae, I did have something akin to that in my foot in my last area in Yacuiba. One night, I bent my big toe a little, and felt it hurt. When I examined my foot, I felt a pimple in the crease under the toe, where the joint is. I squeezed the pimple, only to have a larva come out. About 1/4″ in length, so it shocked me. Fortunately, I still have my foot.

    It was common for elders to have malaria, typhoid, and other maladies. I do recall one sister that had Mal de Chagas, who was healed by a priesthood blessing. And it is delivered by the vinchuca cockroach, the only roach that thinks two dimensionally and carries such a terrible disease.

  3. david knowlton says:

    SMB: the Binchuca is a reduviid bug (triatoma infestans) and occupies most of lowland Latin America. It is increasingly moving up into the highlands, although last I knew it was not found in the specific areas I frequent as an anthropologist. But it was very present in many of the regions where I was a missionary. Gerald Smith’s spelling is one of the alternatives (vinchuca) since Spanish does not really distinguish v and b in pronunciation. In English i think most people use the v spelling and in Spanish most use the B spelling.

    I wonder how other missionaries narrate the exposure to things like the Binchuca with its potential to bring chagas. I think the narratives are part of what give great strength to much mission life such that it locates the Church deep within them. Illness is part of the existential world of missionaries and when you do not have your ordinary support and information networks it seems so much bigger…sometimes it is so much bigger. Those networks include your physicians. It seems to me it can create an even greater–though perhaps problematic–reliance of faith.

  4. david knowlton says:

    Gerald…Hope you enjoyed Potosi. I sure did. It was a great place to finish my mission. (I was there in 75-76.)

  5. I would guess that nigna should read nigua.

  6. Or Tunga penetrans.

    Photos here (viewer caution advised)

  7. C Jones says:

    My son is going to Mexico next month. You are terrifying me!

  8. Fascinating, David. Thanks.

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