Shannelle Armstrong, a George Washington University graduate student, woke up screaming before dawn recently with a piercing pain in her left ear.
She was taken by ambulance to the emergency room, where doctors flushed out the culprit: a one-inch live cockroach.
Along with instructions to return to GWU Hospital if she developed any hearing problems, her medical report added the following advice: "Consider sleeping with hat on."
Instead, Armstrong plugs cotton in her ears whenever she walks into her apartment.
The episode escalated a long battle between several graduate students and the university over a festering roach problem in the campus building in which Armstrong lives. The Schenley Building, on H Street, is owned by GWU and managed by a private company, Waggaman-Brawner Corp. of Silver Spring.
The university accommodates about 2,900 students in what many consider some of the best student housing in the city, with rooms larger than average and some private bathrooms. Nonetheless, Armstrong and other students say dorm life has lost a lot of its charm because roaches and even rodents run rampant in many buildings. The office of the school newspaper, for example, housed for months this year a mouse that students named Schtampy.
Acknowledging that what happened to Armstrong was "disgusting," university spokesman Mike Freedman noted that the campus is in an urban area that is itself infested with roaches and rodents. He also said it is often difficult to eliminate bugs in older buildings, where large colonies are deeply entrenched. City bugs also are notorious for fleeing into neighboring buildings when facilities are sprayed and returning when chemicals dissipate.
The university has a comprehensive extermination program that covers the campus twice a week, hitting the most critical areas with powders, sprays, pellets and other poison, Friedman said.
Officials said companies that manage some of the university's buildings, including Waggaman-Brawner, provide regular pest service. They said that exterminators are scheduled to come to the Schenley every two weeks and that students must request that their apartments be sprayed.
But Armstrong and other Schenley residents said exterminators come into the building infrequently and do not spray the entire building, which is necessary to prevent roaches from returning. "They definitely do not spray every two weeks," tenant Janey Blyburg said.
Armstrong said she knows that many buildings in the District are prone to pests, but she contends that the company that manages the Schenley ignored her complaints, which began months ago. "I am not going to pay for the humiliation ... to have substandard housing because I am a student," said Armstrong, who added that she keeps her apartment meticulously clean.
Waggaman-Brawner officials did not return phone calls to discuss the case.
Other students have complained in years past, including Marcus Alston, 25, a Connecticut lawyer who lived in the Schenley from 1992 until last May. "I'm not surprised that a roach crawled into Shannelle's ear. ... I've have them crawl on me in bed. I flicked them off my face twice," Alston said.
At the Schenley, students try to maintain their own lines of defense, using boric acid, insecticide and other gadgets designed to get rid of the bugs. When none of that worked, Armstrong said, she resorted to withholding rent payments -- $560 a month -- after promises to eliminate the problem were not kept.
Early this month, Armstrong woke up shrieking with an intense, grinding pain in her ear. "I could feel it," she said. "I knew what it was."
Concerned about puncturing her eardrum, emergency room doctors injected a solution into her ear that was intended to paralyze the roach so that it could be removed carefully. "When they injected it with a syringe, the roach popped up. It was alive," said Armstrong, whose ear was not damaged. "It was so gross. They killed it in the emergency room... . There was a one-inch roach in my ear."
According to Mark Dettelbach, a Pittsburgh-based ear specialist, hospital doctors are sometimes called upon to remove different kinds of insects and other bugs from patient's ears, especially in the summer. In urban areas, he said, roaches are the most common of them. Dettelbach said nonpoisonous insects are unlikely to damage the ear and that harm is more likely to be done if people try to remove the insects themselves.
Armstrong said she wants the university to move her out of the Schenley, and she is negotiating with school officials over compensation for medical fees and moving costs. The school has agreed to pay her costs and help her resettle, but her unpaid rent remains an issue.
"It's been a nightmare trying ... to deal with this," Armstrong said. "I'm trying to graduate, apply to law schools. ... My appetite has changed. I think a lot of it has to do with the amount of stress."