Many times while bush-walking, or roaming my land, I’ve felt an uncanny tingle – my snake alarm – which has sharpened my attention to reptillian danger. An extraordinary number of times, this sixth sense has been confirmed an instant later with an encounter of a reptile. Never threateningly, but at close quarters. So I tramped the bush with a certain confidence that, on the rare occasions when a snake would not slither away at my approach, then my chances of falling prey to it’s fangs were very slim indeed.
Mind you, I don’t like the creatures, and despite faith in my intuition, I still react whenever one crosses my path; first with heart-thumping fear and then, when recognition tells me that it is harmless or definitely retreating, with a healthy respect.
After twelve thousand units of tiger snake anti-venene, and countless earnest expressions of ‘You’re lucky to be alive’, my confidence in having a built-in fool-proof snake detection mechanism has deserted me, and that respect has grown many times over.
I had ‘always’ made a point about wearing good boots in the bush, and had harrangued my friend Rob about his insistence on only wearing rubber thongs. Anyway, as usual on the day in question, I had worn my boots all morning, and had only slipped them off to enter the house for lunch. A fresh consignment of new plants had arrived the previous day from north Queensland. Such an event was always a cause for excitement, and so after lunch – and without reshodding in boots – we went down to the plants to admire them, and discuss where we might site them.
Typically, we became excited to plant them sooner rather than later and, without consideration for such an irrelevancy as footwear, we began planting and weeding below the road adjacent to where we had deposited the plants. We do most of our planting in regeneration areas amongst weeds and wattles, in real ‘snakey’ situations you might say, but that was the last thing either of us was thinking about.
For an hour or so we ripped out weeds and thumped our mattocks and planted trees. Presumably making enough ground-level commotion to disturb any lurking beasties. Wrong, we were probably disturbing their peace, irritating them to anger.
I felt a sharp prick on my ankle. It could have been a spiky branch, or shaft of broken bracken fern, except that when I glanced into the mist weed next to my foot, I knew very differently. I couldn’t see a head or tail, but the thick scaly body with distinct black and tan stripes immediately identified it as a very dangerous reptile. It had to be a death adder, or tiger snake, or rough-scaled snake. Whichever, it had to be a very deadly serpent, and I wasn’t prepared to give it another chance to bite me.
“Hell, I’ve been bitten by a snake,” I yelled to Rob, hopping the few metres to the road.
A few months earlier, I had attended a St John’s Ambulance First Aid class in the local hall. The officer had spent a large proportion of the evening emphasising the myths and realities of snake bites, and how to deal with them if the need arose. He had paid particular attention to the procedures, and every work came back clearly and concisely: immobilize, firmly bind the bitten limb, and relax!
The officer had insisted that in the majority of reported bites, no invenomation occurs, but one look at my dirty ankle revealed two bleeding puncture marks. Rob raced to the house for a bandage, while I lay and did my best to breathe deeply and relax. After years of yoga and sporadic meditation, it was surprisingly easy to slow my heart and dismiss any notions of panic, focussing on the sensations in my body.
Within three or four minutes, my leg was firmly bandaged; over the wound, down the foot, and right up the length of my leg as far as the sprain-tight bandage would allow. Rob tore back to telephone the ambulance, while I continued my effort to relax and stay calm. I could feel the strange sensation of alien liquid trickling up my thigh!
A movement next to my right shoulder disturbed my focus. I glanced around, and screamed. Another bloody snake! So much for the meditation. Fortunately it was a harmless brown tree snake, and I laughed with relief as it slithered away in alarm. Rob returned ashen-faced to investigate my scream, anticipating a seizure or similar drama. The ambulance was on it’s way.
The time passed almost pleasantly, in a calm state of shock and acceptance of the situation. Death did not seem to be present, in spite of the awareness of such a possibility.
The ambulance rattled up the long driveway within half an hour. Another longer bandage was wrapped over the first, even more firmly, and a salt drip inserted in my arm. I was lifted onto a stretcher, and we were soon trundling back down the track, bouncing and bumping so much that I was almost thrown off the stretcher. Closer to town and the siren was activated – the full dramatic touch. Into casualty of the small local hospital, and all attention was directed to me.
Only an hour had passed since the bite, and I was not feeling more than slightly dizzy, a bit stunned. A swab was taken from around the wound, and some blood. I was told to keep talking, about whatever was happening to me while the samples were analysed. Within ten minutes or so, the results of the samplings confirmed that it was a tiger snake, and that the concentration of venom was high. The medical staff were discussing contingency plans, cross-referencing books, agreeing and disagreeing, as well as being in constant phone contact with the herpetology experts in Melbourne. The level of toxin was very high, and there was hardly enough in stock in the hospital. A call went out for tiger snake anti-venene from Lismore and the Gold Coast.
The anti-venene was prepared as a double dose, and only then was the bandage loosened. I started sweating, though whether from shock or poison I couldn’t tell. Within a few minutes I was retching and my eyesight began blurring. Action stations.
A police car arrived from Tweed Heads, the driver mildly bragging that they made the distance in 12 minutes (normaly closer to half and hour). Shortly afterwards, the Lismore cops arrived, having resorted to similar heroics. Friends later confirmed being overtaken by a patrol car travelling at a dangerous speed, unaware that they were carrying life-saving fluids for John Button.
I was ‘out of it’, resigned to the competence of modern medicine, and the whims of Fate. Before I was wheeled away to Intensive Care, one doctor remarked ‘I want to see you in the morning!’ He meant it.
I’d been pumped full of anti-venene, adrenalin to counteract it, Fenergin for nausea, and salt solution. I was told that the bandage and deep breathing had probably saved my life.
For the next four days I was constantly monitored. ECGs for heart analysis, copious blood-letting to ascertain crucial factors, pulse, blood pressure, and goodness knows what else. The lot. I had a constant salt drip, while at the other end a catheter took away my urine, for similar close scrutiny.
3000 units is considered a normal initial dose against Tiger Snake bite. I was administered 6000 since the indication from the blood test was of an extremely heavy invenomation. At ten o’clock that night the duty doctor was called when my vital statistics began to run awry. He consulted the county’s foremost snake doctor in Melbourne, and immediately injected another 6000 units, literally to save my life. As he returned home to his champagne gone flat, he repeated that he wanted to see me in the morning, and not to fall out of bed during the night. My blood refused to coagulate.
Throughout a night of very fitful sleep, I was awoken to be tested constantly, in case even more anti-venene was necessary. Mercifully it was not. My body was working to survive. Over the next days, still tested frequently, I gradually began to recover. For several days, my eyesight remained blurred, my body felt like lead, and all my muscles ached as if I’d been a bashing victim.
After four or five days, I was moved from Intensive Care to the normal ward for a few more days of acute observation. Finally I was discharged, with explicit instructions to do nothing for a while, and very little for a lot longer.
I had no choice anyway. My body, which had been strong and in peak condition, was a weak as a kitten for months afterwards, and significantly longer before I had returned to good health. I was very lucky. I do wear my boots all the time these days. Well, almost all the time anyway.