Wednesday, October 7, 2009

When a snake bites your student on his buttocks

(Would you check the white Swiss butt of this biologist for a snake bite?)

When you do field work in places where there are venomous snakes, you think about it. Because you see these snakes only rarely, you become somewhat habituated to the fact that they exist in your location, but it is always in the back of your mind. You think about where you put your hands and feet, where you sit down to have your lunch, where you go to the bathroom, and how you pick up a backpack that has been on the ground for several hours.

We know that humans actually do get bitten by venomous snakes. I have had two colleagues receive serious bites from snakes, and it is not pleasant. You spend days or weeks in the hospital receiving doses of anti-venom and other drugs, battle pain and nausea, and often undergo reconstructive surgery to repair the muscles that experienced necrosis and atrophy near the site of the wound.

It was a tense moment when one of my graduate students appeared unexpectedly at the door of our little house in southern Costa Rica one evening and announced to me: “Tom, I think I’ve been bitten by a snake.” I was studying birds, so my schedule was that of an ornithologist. I got up at 4:30am, went to the field at 5, came home about noon, and went to bed at 9pm. Martin, who is the focus of this story, was studying frogs and lizards. He went to the field about 2pm, but never returned home before midnight. We rarely saw each other until the weekend when we took some time off. But on this day, I heard his car pull up to the house in the dark about my bedtime, saw him trudge past the window in his yellow rain gear, and watched him make his startling appearance at the back door. He was slightly hunched over, his face was pale, and he stared me straight in the face as I digested the words “…….bitten by a snake.”

He explained that he and his assistants were sampling lizards after dark in a pasture next to the forest. This technique involves crouching low to the ground and, using a flashlight, searching every square meter of your assigned area, capturing all lizards you see by hand. The individuals were then taken to a processing “station”, where they were weighed, measured, and marked, before being returned to the area where they were captured. At one point, the student felt a sharp “prick” on his buttocks and at that very moment a small snake, striped red and black like some coral snakes, crawled between his legs. The temporal proximity of the prick and the presence of the snake led him to conclude that the snake had caused the prick. Not an unreasonable conclusion, in my opinion. The snake was definitely NOT a fer-de-lance, which we feared the most. But there are many other venomous snakes in Costa Rica. He waited a few minutes, felt nothing, and assumed that either the snake was not venomous, or it had not really bitten him, or, or, or. But the student was about an hour from any medical help, so his Costa Rican assistants demanded that he return home, just in case he needed to go to the hospital in town. He would be that much closer.

Gap Adventures
So Martin returned to our house and appeared at the door as described. The next question out of his mouth was almost more shocking than the statement that he might have been bitten. “Tom, would you check my buttocks?” I explained that this might be going further than the faculty-student contract, that this was not in my job description, that I needed to go to bed to get my sleep, but, geesh, this had to be done. He dropped his trou and I put on my examination face as if I had done this a hundred times before, and not at all sure what I would find. I looked it over, carefully, but I could see absolutely nothing—no wound, no mark, no swelling, no redness. I pronounced that he would probably live, although the scientist in me was quick to point out that I had no baseline data with which to compare. I could only assume that what I was seeing was a normal-looking, very white, pasty, Swiss butt (the student was, in fact, from Switzerland). We both laughed and the incident ended.

I got a lot of mileage out of this anecdote. I repeated the story when I introduced Martin to an audience before he gave a presentation on his research. I emailed everyone I knew and told the story. My son Matt replied to the email with a sobering thought: “Dad, it is a good thing he had not been bitten. You would have had to suck out the venom.” What could have been a really serious event turned out to be nothing but fodder for an amusing anecdote. But our fascination with snakes continues, and we think about them, and we watch for them, and the stories about them are remembered for a long, long time.