Snakebit in Taiwan

I was photographing the ghost money burner at Fulong’s Sea Goddess Temple and getting some spectacular backlit results.

Camera on tripod over shoulder, I headed back to the Fubar restaurant, owned by my friend Etienne. 

Just as I was crossing through the small path between the undergrowth, ZAP!  Damn, a wasp just stung my leg!  Umm … no, there’s something CURLING around my leg!  Yikes!  It’s a F*CKING SNAKE!

I kicked it off my leg, and there it lay in the path curled up and checking me out.  My brain went into full overdrive mode:  “Okay maybe it’s not venomous um no, it’s got that triangular head thing that says it’s a viper, oh shit oh shit okay maybe it’s a dry bite and it didn’t inject any venom, oh no, that BURNS and it’s travelling RIGHT UP MY LEG, oh shiiiiit I guess I’m NOT just going to get in the car and drive back to Taipei tonight.” 

Next thing I started calculating what to do about the snake?  Do I try to kill it?  My tripod was fully extended with the camera attached so it was very unwieldy.  I was also NOT going to give it a chance to gaff me again.  My leg was VERY rapidly going numb. The speed at which the venom was surging up my leg was really a huge surprise to me.  Should I try to take a photo of it?  No, camera settings are not right and that will take too long to fiddle with.  Ok, ok, just take a REALLY good look at it … and don’t run but move quickly!  Dragging my leg I made it across the road and into the restaurant, where Etienne and his wife Brigitte were serving their guests.  “Snake!  I just got bitten by a snake!”

Etienne dropped everything and herded me onto a bed in the spare room.  “Hold on, I’ll get an ambulance.  And TRY to get your breathing rate down!”  And I’m like “I KNOW!  I have counselled people about hiking in snake country in South Africa many times!  But YOU try and keep calm and breathe normally when your frikkin leg is on fire from snake venom, which is in fact DESIGNED to speed up heart rate in order to quickly incapacitate prey!?”

Etienne realized that his Chinese skills were probably not up to calling for an ambulance, so he did the next best thing: he jumped on his scooter and zoomed around the block to the police station.  He charged up the steps and crashed through the doors, shouting, “Does anyone here speak English?” to the startled policemen. Met with only blank stares, he made snake fangs with his fingers, and said, “Wode pengyou! (my friend) SSSSSssss! TCHACK!” And made a striking motion.  “Ah!  Zhidao! (we know)” they said and jumped into action. 

It wasn’t long before the ambulance arrived – maybe 20 minutes.  Wheee whaa whee whaa  and a shaky ride off to the clinic in the coastal town of Aodi, where I was now in really severe pain.  They were very efficient there – the doc showed me a laminated booklet they had on hand and I could immediately pinpoint the correct species:  Protobothrops mucrosquamatus, aka Taiwan Habu, aka 殼花 (guī ké huā), aka “OW! F*CK!”

So they rigged up a drip with anti-venom (after quite a few needle sticks trying to find my now-collapsed veins) and then the nurse came around and sweetly asked, did I need anything for pain?  “YES! Geezz! It BURNS!”  She scurried off and came back and squirted something into my vein.  I lay back, waiting for it to take effect – nothing.  10 Minutes later she came by again and equally sweetly asked if the pain was any better and “NO! DAMMIT!  IT HURTS!”.  So she squirted something again and in a minute the pain sort of went down to a dull background roar.

So the doc says this is a pretty serious bite and he’s arranging the ambulance to take me to the hospital in Keelung.  I didn’t have my health card with me (hadn’t been to a doc in like 8 years) so I had to pay cash there:  NT$7,000 for the anti-venom shot.  The ambulance was operated by a volunteer organization and free. Somewhat more compos mentis now, I raised myself up to look out the back window as the ambulance zippered the centerline all the way to Keelung, with cars mercifully steering clear.  I gave my phone to my son William, who had been patiently sticking by my side, talking to the doctors and translating for me, even while I shouted obscenities at him every time he tried to move my leg or arrange things around it, and he took some pictures.

At this point I knew I wasn’t going to die. I knew the difference between viper bites (hemotoxin destroys the blood and cells, vs. neurotoxin, which attacks the central nervous system and stops breathing and the heart.  But I have seen some gruesome pics from viper bites like the South African puff adder that causes flesh to rot off huge gaping wounds and appendages falling off.  Ergh.

So I booked into Keelung, and by this time the cocktail of meds I had been given was well and truly kicked in, and I was having a full out-of-body experience – I was floating above a landscape, with rivers and ploughed fields and little houses… while fully aware that this was not real …

So anyway … I ended up staying at Keelung hospital for a week. Two more anti-venom shots, my leg swelling to twice its size, with the doctor telling me cheerfully that if it swelled too much we’d have to cut it open . Tons of antibiotics, large fluid-filled blisters forming on my legs, but anyhow, after a few days the swelling stabilized, and I began to reckon my foot was not going to fall off after all.

At the end of the week I was presented with the bill:  the whole week’s stay, plus treatment was NT$55,000, of which I paid – having retrieved my health card – the princely sum of NT$5,000.   (Later, I returned to the clinic in Aodi, presented my health card, and received a cash refund of the NT$7,000 on the spot.)

I stayed home from work for another week, then went to work with a cane, and after another three or 4 weeks I was pretty much ok again.  I have no scarring (went for a lot of foot massages) and full functionality of my foot and leg.  Just an area of numbness on top of my foot where there was some irreversible nerve damage.  All good, thanks to my friend Etienne, William Murphy from snakesoftaiwan.com for information (and pics for this article!), and finally my son William, who stayed by my side and navigated the hospital and health department red tape, got me food, and emptied my pee bottle…

Oh, and when I got back to work, HR told me my company has additional insurance – I could claim  NT$2000 for each day in hospital. So in the end, I had MADE NT$5,000 on the whole (or)deal! Winning!