I have watched series of documentaries and tens of movies about snakes, their bites, and other aspects that border around their biological diversity and behaviours. I have seen several snakes in real life, while many were so unlucky to have their life ended through my hands, some managed to escape either with different degrees of injuries or totally unhurt. However, never in my life have I witnessed someone being bitten by a snake - until this last weekend, Sunday to be precise.
My Sunday started as planned on paper. Woke up, ate breakfast, and headed to my small farm (or garden? I don't even know) to harvest the maize I planted about 3 months ago and to also apply herbicide to the weed in preparation for dry season planting. I returned home around 1 pm and decided to take a nap before going for a program later. About 20 minutes into the nap, I heard loud cries from my neighbour with whom I share the same house with.
From the cacophony of cries, I was able to pick that the issue was about a snake. I initially thought it was one of those snake moments and that the man of the house would be able to deal with it accordingly. Time is of the essence and I needed that nap very badly in order to be active for the rest of the day.
The cry did not subside and the nap I was hoping to have started disappearing. I managed to stand up and headed for my neighbour's apartment. The scene I met was not the one I was expecting. The mother was having hysteria, their first child was lying on the floor while the father was busy tieing a tourniquet around the leg of the boy, just below the knee. Apparently, whatever snake that came visiting has bitten the poor boy.
The family of 4 (father, mother, 2 sons), just returned from their usual Sunday church service and the mother decided to cook in the kitchen. Since there was no electricity, the first son offered to open the kitchen door leading to the backyard from sufficient illumination into the kitchen to ease the cooking activities of the mother. The snake which seemed to have been stuck in between the door and its hinges before then regained freedom immediately the door was opened and struck the first object with its teeth in a retaliatory move. That first object happened to the leg of the poor boy.
The First Aid
While the wife kept on mumbling that the snake was still within the house, I told the father we should take the boy to the hospital immediately as any delay can be dangerous. He was reluctant for some reasons best known to him. Other neighbours have successfully gathered around the house by this time and each person started throwing in different pieces of advice. He eventually settled to take the boy to one neighbourhood woman that has herbal antidotes to snake bites. Some herbal concoction whose constituent I have no knowledge of was applied to the bite wound while the victim was also given some concoction to swallow.
The woman told us that the victim would vomit after some minutes and the venom of the snake would come out with the vomit. It sounded incredulous to me but I decided not to pass any comment. Meanwhile, while the boy was being taken to the woman for treatment, some neighbours have ransacked the house and killed the culprit snake. The boy appeared calm a bit after the treatment and was taken back to the house.
To the Hospital
I was not totally comfortable with the alternative treatment given to the boy. While I do not doubt that some alternative medicines do work, I have it at the back of my mind that many could just be due to pure placebo effects.
Not all snakes are venomous and many people don't have this knowledge. According to experts, snakes can be identified as being venomous or otherwise by the shape of their heads. Venomous snakes are known to have heads that are somehow triangular in shape or bulbous while their non-venomous counterparts are known to have round heads. The heads of venomous snakes are so shaped due to the location of the venomous sac.
If such is the case, some natural medicines might have been false-classified as having anti-snake venom potentials while the primary reason is purely based on the fact that the snake bites they have been applied to were not venomous.
I made a little attempt to check if the snake (now dead) that bit the boy is a venomous one or otherwise from what I have read in literature. The head seemed to appear triangular, even though it had some injuries on it due to the killing blows. Upon discovering this, I immediately told my neighbour to let us head to the hospital as soon as possible.
On our way to the hospital, the father plucked some leaves of Launaea taraxacifolia and told the victim boy to be chewing at it. Apparently, he was told by another person that the plant works against snake bites. Also, the boy is yet to vomit as prophesied by the woman that applied local herbs to the wound.
We got to the hospital and a few questions were asked before the boy was admitted and immediately placed on a dextrose saline drip. We were asked the period of time between the bite and getting to the hospital and what and what that have been used. We were also asked if the boy had vomited from some of the things given to him to consume. In all these, no one really asked about the kind/species of snake that bit him - whether venomous or otherwise.
Snake Antivenoms are damn scarce and expensive
We were given a prescription for some drugs which include 8 vials of polyvalent snake Antivenoms and 2 ampoules of Atropine injection. We set out to get them immediately not knowing that we were in for one heck of a search.
We searched virtually all the pharmacies in town without any success except for the Atropine injection. We returned defeated to the hospital in hope that there would be an alternative but the physician in charge insisted we get the Antivenoms, otherwise, he threatened to refer the boy to another hospital that is about 100 km away in another town.
We started making inquiries around if there are still pharmacies left for us to explore. Luckily, we were able to get one that has the antivenom, but in an amount that is short of what we needed. They have got only 3 while we needed 8 and each one went for about $18.
To cut the long story short, the Physician insisted we get all the 8 vials or else, he will not start with the treatment. After some further searching which included going to another town, we were able to get a total of 5 and when the physician saw that all hope seemed lost, he started administering the antivenom.
What could have been
Before we got to the hospital, the leg of the boy had started swollen up to the knee level where the tourniquet was tied. Also, the colour has started changing from brown to black. This clearly indicated some level of toxicity. The boy was clearly in agony and was wriggling in pain even when he was on dextrose saline drip at the hospital.
About some minutes after administering the first set of antivenom, the original skiing colour of leg returned and the swollenness subsided a bit. This gave an indication that the antivenom was working.
I left the hospital around 10:30 pm thinking of what could have been had it being that the boy was not taken to the hospital. I am not a stranger to snakes but this event I witnessed will live with me for some time, especially the picture of the snake striking the boy which I have painted in my head. By the way, he is barely 6 years old.
Carbon also played a role
As a chemistry student, I know a bit about what carbon can do but never did I expect that it will come useful in the treatment of snake bites.
Just this morning, the nurse asked that charcoal in powdered form be brought and added to the surface of the wound before applying the rest of the dressing components. I was initially perplexed as to the reason my knowledge of the chemistry of carbon bailed me out.
Activated carbon in charcoal form is capable of absorbing toxins in the environment. The powdered charcoal must have been added in order to absorb the toxins present in the leg which is indicated by the swollenness around it. How brilliant!
Thank you for reading my humble submission.