February 28th 2011
The good story that bit me
In writing this particular tale I can prove to all a new qualification: that of knowing a good story when it bit me. Having spent the last twenty years on Magnetic Island I have successfully avoided this specific credential but on Thursday afternoon, whilst, stepping out of a shed, where we live at Bolger Bay, your correspondent felt a sharp tap on the toe and turned to stare death in the eye, well, a death adder at least.
We’d been busy tidying up and I’m still in the mood for blaming the whole affair on the very poor quality of the thongs I’d purchased just the week before. The straps that meet between the toe just plain broke off. Removing the offending flippers I continued to work naked from the ankle down. Then for perhaps the 10th or 20th time that day I stepped outside and over a fat, little, orange and brown crocheted, toxic sock.
Death adders are fast disappearing in Australia but not on Magnetic, where, their very laid-back attitude is appreciated. But even in Magnetic’s outback, away from the bright lights of Nelly Bay, after the umpteenth near-treading-on by a large primate, our adder had simply had enough.
Let’s be clear. It didn’t really hurt that much. But, toxic socks aside, it was a shock. A moment I’d thought about many a time in the bush and as I heard myself call out “Pen! I’ve been bitten by a death adder!”, a flush of adrenalin-laced excitement hit - making me worry that the venom was getting a big free wave to surge on through my body.
Pen came running and the look of fear on her face triggered a useful counter-reaction in of jokey blokey passivity in me. I ripped my dirty work shirt to make a bandage, I saw blood on my finger where I’d momentarily held my toe - tied a quick granny knot around it and then she was handing me my mobile. Here we go I thought. Here’s me with a real snake bite and I’m dialling 000. All so strangely unreal and super real at the same time. Pen had vanished but I was busy explaining to the emergency girl - who might have been in Mumbai for all I knew - that I was on Magnetic Island and that we will have to drive out in the 4WD because there’s still a tree down over the road since the cyclone (come on TCC) and we will meet the ambo along the road and blah, blah and yep we will put the emergency indicator thingy on too.
But Pen was not idle. She’d bolted to another shed and returned with a proper bandage which she applied with perfect pressure to the offending foot.
She hates driving and I hate being a passenger but off we went through the many small lakes which become semi-permanent features of much of Sunglow Avenue and the West Point track during the wet.
We joke that Pen’s vivid creative view of the world leads her to seeing things when driving which sometimes ain’t what they seem. The old dictum - which I try to uphold: “I brake for snakes” can become, when Pen is at the wheel, “I stop for sticks”. But this time whole upper branches of Yasi-fallen trees snapped, crackled and popped as she ploughed her way through every milky tea coloured slush hole, fearfully and repeatedly asking me, “How do you feel now?”
I felt fine. My foot however was feeling a bit weird.
We met the ambulance near Ned Lees Creek and soon I was in the care of chirpy ambo Kerry Dillon who added considerably to my mummification with a pressure bandage up to my thigh and then a splint for good measure. With a list of questions I was to become expert in answering through the rest of the night, Kerry had me sorted and soon we were away but, being tall and a bit cramped by the space, I wondered why my current bed was called a stretcher.
With a pick-up attached to my heart I watched Magnetic’s familiar but cyclone-denuded sights recede through the rear window while my personal percussion played back through the cabin’s sound system. I’ve been told my heart has a rather odd rhythm. Now I know for sure. It’s unusually slow but with an off-beat every now and then. Medical types all assume I must be an athlete and I hate to let them down but there’s no more compelling listening to be had than in waiting to make sure there’s another “beep” coming.
Kerry stopped briefly at the Island clinic where apparently I’d rated a triage category 2, which, out of 5, are rated in reverse levels of seriousness to that of cyclones and this mean’t a certain trip to Townsville Hospital.
The ferry was waiting and new ambos, Brendan and John appeared to escort me and another poor soul across the bay. “Are you seeing double? Can I see your teeth? Do you have a headache? Nausea? Bruising? .... Brendan, wanted to know all. Pen had arrived with supplies and we rolled past legendary ferry deckie Tony Wilson who wondered why I’d been disturbing the wildlife.
Brendan with his patient
Immediately on board Brendan had a cannula into my wrist - better now than out on the bouncy bay. Again came the questions, “Fine, yep, no problems, just a sore foot” I answered.
Arriving in Townsville another ambulance was ready and waiting. My new ambos were Selina and Phil. The questions were repeated and so were my answers. Their manner was totally professional and reassuring but a macabre vision interrupted. Two Teddy bears hung from above. Their knitted heads stuck through the hand rail and their little cross-shaped eyes fixed in a deathly stare. I looked instead through the “000” sign, read “emergency” backwards and listened again for my next “beep”.
Spending time with people whose life’s work is to save and preserve lives, is in itself, a benefit. And while such positivity is clearly infectious I doubted that it alone was the reason I was still feeling so chipper.
There is something both absurd and wonderful that so many resources are made available at no charge for situations like this. I quietly dipped me lid to former Townsville State Parliamentarian Mike Reynolds, who, as Emergency Services Minister pushed through the ambulance levy to make sure all trips in Queensland such as mine remained free to the public.
Next I was entering hospital via its bowels and while the decor was industrial the attention was first class. I gathered it was a quiet night in Accident and Emergency. Nobody was racing to save anybody but there was a poor chap bruised and bloodied opposite who emitted a crow-like “Arrrg” every couple of minutes while another bloke seemed to be getting angry with his thongs. I knew how he felt. Thongs can let you down.
This was all too easy I thought. I know my snakes. It was a death adder without doubt and yet I was still absolutely fine an hour later.
Nurse Dave, who came to take my blood, wouldn’t have his photo taken so I threatened to describe him instead. His burly presence was however a front for a very thoughtful and funny fellow. A Marx Bros fan who claimed I just had “man flu” described himself as, “a Mongo nurse” - remember Mongo who punches out the horse in “Blazing Saddles”. Dave did the Q & A as well as any: the numbness, the nausea, the chest pain, the head ache and “show me your teeth” (that’s to check my gums aren’t bleeding), were all passed as usual. I just had a sore foot. So we waited while the heart rate machine kept alarming that my beat was too slow and the auto blood-pressure constrictor squeezed my arm at intervals reminding me of its bush cousin who’d caused my hospital visit. Meanwhile I overheard one, non-herpetologically-versed nurse, tell another, “This patient was bitten by a black adder!”
Dr Sara Crooksley explains my situation
Soon I was to meet Dr Sara Cooksley who told me that until the blood tests were back I’d stay in the splint. She also explained that, with snake bites, the Doctors will pay more attention to what the blood tests say than anything I, as a patient, might have to contribute. We patients were unreliable as the blood may well be doing strange things before a patient knew about it. One possibility was that my blood could stop coagulating (clogging up). This didn’t seem too bad to me as I didn’t have any wounds apart from the cannula and the adders own little fang holes. Surely the hospital could fix them. But Dr Sara explained that all through the body there will be continuing tiny ruptures I wouldn’t know about because the blood is continually patching them up by coagulation and that, without it, I could start leaking all over my ship.
Eventually the blood tests came back and all was fine. Now was the time to release the splint and pressure bandage and see what would happen. If there was any venom in that bite now would be its chance to have a good go at my vitals but all under the watchful eye of Dr Sara.
Off come the bandages
Off came the bandage and the quiz was repeated. Nothing, zilch and all’s fine and even better my foot was feeling all the better now released from its hours in bondage. But Dr Sara wasn’t totally convinced. Things could still happen and I’d need to be observed for another 6 hours at least. No going back to Maggie tonight!
So that night we were placed in a special over-night room and poor Pen made do with a business-class chair while I snoozed comfortably except for the quiz at 2am. At 6am the final blood test was taken and this convinced the very thorough experts that I had, in nurse Dave’s words, “Dodged a bullet!”
I was as lucky as I was impressed at my treatment by the many professionals all along the way that day. And, if this tale helps show that some bits of Queensland Health actually work well - very well in fact - then it should be acknowledged. This lucky patient is certainly grateful.
Peek-a-boo adder The little toxic sock what bit me
Postscript: The following day I returned to the shed and the laid-back little toxic sock had moved about half a metre and was quietly waiting for me under the leaves. This time I was ready with my trusty adder wire and he/she was quickly into a bucket for a nice long walk and release.
Story: George Hirst
Photos: Pen Sheridan & George Hirst
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