Friday, June 7, 2019

(Maybe) I Got Bit by a Snake

I saw my hand by the morning light streaming through my blinds and felt like I was looking at something that wasn’t a part of me. A crimson, half-inch lesion rose above the right side of my right hand like Mary’s Rock. Swelling puffed up the skin like a balloon, leaving me with one apparent knuckle. I flipped my arm over. Red streaks crawled up it like fingers stretching to grasp my heart.

My instinct was to call my dermatologist. “Good morning, I’d like to schedule an appointment.”

“If this is for body sculpting, I’ll transfer you to that receptionist.”

Nope. I rapid-fired my problem: yesterday afternoon, I said, I noticed what I thought was a mosquito bite on my hand. I didn’t think anything of it. In the middle of the night, I woke to pee and felt itchiness, swelling, and that the inflammation around the bite had expanded. I didn’t want to turn the light on because studies show that makes it harder to fall back asleep, so I just slept with an ice pack on my hand. Then I woke for real. Then I described my not-my-hand.

My dermatologist had an opening at 11:40 the following morning.

I looked at not-my-hand again. I’d become a patient user of medical services, a confidence stemming from years of health and a rockstar teenage immune system. This seemed more urgent, but maybe I could go to work and hold off 28 hours before taking action on my hand. Basically, I didn’t know what to do about skin things when the skin guy wasn’t available. “What would you do?”

“Go to urgent care. Like, now.”

I emailed my supervisor requesting pre-approved sick leave for an unknown period of time and drove to the urgent care. The doc there looked at my not-hand and arm, on which the red streaks looked like they had grown since half an hour earlier. She said it looked like a bite, though not from a mosquito. She couldn’t help me, and I needed to go to the ER to probably get IV antibiotics. Like, now. She called the ER to inform the staff I was coming.

Fear engulfed me on my drive to the hospital. I remembered a TED Talk portraying a future in which people die from mere scrapes—and maybe not-mosquito bites?—because antibiotics may no longer work. I remembered my dad nearly dying from pneumonia because medicines weren’t killing the bacteria until it was almost too late. Whatever infection was spreading through my lymphatic system, I wasn’t certain I’d survive with all limbs intact or at all. I realized how similar illnesses can be: a malignant tumor and bacterial infection both require treatment with no guarantee they’ll work, and all you can do is hope. The difference for me was when I was 16 and 19, I knew chemotherapy and radiation would kill my cancers; at 35, I lacked that same certainty regarding treatment for my bite.

The hospital staff registered and roomed me quickly. The ER doctor entered to see about my bite. “Gross, look at that thing!” he said, jumping back. “I don’t mess with spiders. Can’t stand them. I don’t mind insects. Bees. Snakes, even. But spiders? Mmm Mmm, not me.”

“You think it’s a spider bite?”

“I think so. Though I can’t say for sure. It doesn’t look like a bite from a tic. I’ve been seeing more of these emergencies lately, maybe due to global warming. Damn. Look at that gross thing.”

The doctor started telling me about a recent patient of his, and though I wondered if that was breaking some kind of health privacy thingy, I needed to hear this. That patient’s infection from a bite on his leg led to the red fingers spreading all through his leg. He went home on oral antibiotics, but that didn’t take, so he had to be admitted for long-term IV antibiotics.

I made a mental note to email my supervisor again giving her a heads up that I may be requesting extended sick leave if I would have to be admitted. But first, the doctor photographed my bite and infection. He said he would send them to the infectious disease specialist, who would use the photos to decide which antibiotics to prescribe. I figured the doctor took pictures of all his patients’ gnarly not-so-human-looking body parts to show off to his kids.

The infectious disease doc prescribed two powerful IV antibiotics I’d receive in the ER—vancomycin and Rocephin—plus oral Augmentin to take at home for the next two weeks.

I stayed in that room for some five hours as the bacteria killers streamed through my blood system. Mostly I read Searching for Bobby Fischer. Sometimes, I re-investigated my arm. And occasionally, I closed my eyes and visualized the medicine obliterating my disease, a tactic I picked up during treatment for my second cancer, myelodysplasia, sixteen years earlier.

When I left, I felt good about my prospect of not dying and even retaining my arm. While waiting for CVS to fill my Augmentin, I googled spider bites. The images didn’t resemble my bite, which looked like two overlapping bulbs. Then I googled snake bites, and the images of these bites looked more like mine.

At work two days later, I showed my supervisor my bite, which had shrunk in size. The swelling had mostly dissipated, too. Did I get it while I was hiking two days earlier, she said? Who knows, though I had first noticed what I thought was a mosquito bite while at work just sitting at my desk. How could I have gotten bit without noticing it, she said? I must have been so in the zone on a work product. How could a snake have bitten me at work, she said? I was that in the zone. She looked closer. “Nah, that’s definitely a bite from a brown recluse spider.”

I weigh some six million times as much as a brown recluse weighs. I think about that, and then I think: how has any human in history lasted past two days of life without modern medicine, and thus how has our species lasted to this point of actually having modern medicine? Within eight hours, what looked like a mosquito bite transformed into the red fingers of death, and I was helpless to stymie the infection’s progression if not for medicine. I could choose to stay indoors to reduce my likelihood of getting bit again, but I say we share the world with critters and must expect to deal with their talents and powers at least every once in a while. I see you, biter of my right hand, and I accept you, and if you don’t bite me again, that’d be cool.

I’ll never know what bit me. Maybe it was a brown recluse spider. But saying I’ve lived through two cancers and a snake bite sure rolls off the tongue easily.

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Dad said...

Even though you told me about the snake/spider bite, reading your blog makes the experience even more real and scary. There are many nasty critters that we are subject to. You may never know with certainty what actually bit you, but I think that the leading suspect critters are the brown recluse spider or black widow spider. Both of these spiders are found in the Mid Atlantic region. I am very happy that you are now recovering and able to write about the experience and scare.

Benjamin Rubenstein said...

Thanks, Dad. You're right that I'll never know what bit me. I also know the critters are out there, and there's no hiding from them! At least we'll know what to do if either of us gets bit in the future.