Sometimes missionaries get bitten by snakes. But usually you’d think it would happen in some deep, dark jungle. Not the Oklahoma panhandle. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.
We had the privilege of spending several weeks in SE Colorado with Amber’s family. The thing I most look forward to when visiting out west is being fed by Amber’s aunts. Usually it’s a nice beef brisket, but this time Aunt Joyce decided to make some baby back ribs. She spent like two days getting it all flavored properly. I spent like two weeks looking forward to the feast.
Uncle Paul was wanting to get some old, broken fence posts pulled out on the ranch. I hopped in the pickup after both our wives made us promise to be back by 1:00 sharp for lunch. We did a few small jobs and then started to pull the posts. Uncle Paul was running the bucket on the tractor, as I walked the old fencerow as a spotter. Once we found a post I’d throw a chain around it and then Paul would pull it out. He’d warned me to watch out for snakes, a warning that I didn’t take lightly due to my intense theological training and innate fear of animals without legs.
We got to a particular section of the fencerow covered in some taller weeds. It was there that the attack happened. Ol’ Mo had warned me that August is the most dangerous season for rattlers, because they're shedding their skin and don’t see well to rattle. Well, turns out he was right. Rattlesnake fangs are hooked and when they strike they open their mouth wide, sink their fangs into soft tissue and pull back. It’s on the backward pull that they inject their venom. By God’s grace, when the snake struck at me my hand was bent and it’s fang hit me square on the knuckle. That prevented it from sinking into any soft tissue. There was a pliers on the ground and we found a pool of venom on the pliers head.
I knew right away I’d been hit, so I pulled my glove off and found a spot of blood on my right index knuckle. I bled it as much as I could and then sucked on it - which you’re not supposed to do because the mouth is some of the most absorbent tissue in the body. Since we saw the venom on the pliers and since my hand didn’t start swelling, it seemed safe to keep working. After about an hour my finger did start to stiffen a little bit, kind of like when you jam your finger. Not wanting to lose my hand, we decided to go to the hospital.
On the way, we noticed the clock was creeping very close to that promised 1:00 hour. Both Uncle Paul and I were more afraid to call our wives than we were of the snakebite itself. Paul called Aunt Joyce and I asked that they not say anything to Amber until we’d seen the doctor and had some information to share. Well, Aunt Joyce kind of sucked in her breath when Uncle Paul told her what had happened. Amber, being prone to much eavesdropping as well as strong doses of pessimism, figured something was wrong and would not be dissuaded by Joyce’s calm demeanor. When Paul called back 15 minutes later and Joyce left the room, she was certain something was up. She heard Joyce say “Bruce isn't there?” When Aunt Kaye confirmed that Bruce is indeed one of the doctors in Boise City, Amber pressed for more information. That’s when Aunt Joyce said “Your husband was bitten by a snake.” To which Amber responded “Oh, good. I’m so relieved.” I’m not even making that up. Apparently she thought I’d been cut in half, or been crushed, or had my stunning good looks marred in some irreparable way…you know, something truly terrible. A snakebite is very low on Amber’s extensive list of anxieties for her husband’s welfare.
Meanwhile, back on the ranch, I wasn’t too concerned myself. Uncle Paul? Well, he was cool, calm and collected and I’m generally not given to panic. I figured “Hey, it’s rattlesnake country. This kind of stuff happens all the time. Everyone knows what to do.”
Well, when we arrived at the hospital we tried to avoid the large E.R. fees by seeing a doctor directly. But the receptionist would have none of it. I guess hospital policy dictates that snakebites are emergencies and must be handled in the room designated for such. They started taking my vital signs and asking me all sorts of questions. Every nurse had a good laugh when they heard I was from Africa and came to Oklahoma to be bitten by a snake. Eventually the doctor arrived and said that they have one vial of antivenin on hand. But before doing anything he had to call poison control for instruction. Turns out, snakebites are so rare that even a doctor who’s been practicing for almost 40 years needed to brush up on his protocol. Leave it to this tenderfoot to be the one who helps them further their education on the subject.
Ultimately, while it may have been foolish to continue working out on the ranch for awhile, it ended up saving us lots of money. If we had gone in directly they would have injected the antivenin, put me on a helicopter and airlifted me to Lubbock. The vial alone would have been $5k plus the helicopter and hospital fees. As it was, since it had been so long and there was such a small reaction, Poison Control instructed the hospital to monitor my vital signs for 6 hours and then discharge me if it didn’t become more serious.
So, I ended up getting the most expensive afternoon nap of my life. Aunt Joyce sent in a plate of ribs and fixin’s, I watched Netflix in a nice leather recliner and caught some shut-eye.