Friday, July 22, 2005

Don't tell me there's not a chance of being bitten by a brown recluse spider. Or, for that matter, that medical professionals are even close to being eager to make this "myth" diagnosis. On July 4th in 1984, I was at a Long Island beach. The next morning, as I was taking a shower, I noticed I had an extremely itchy bug bite on my calf. I didn't think much of it. Later that day at work, I noticed my calf area surrounding the bite was swelled so much that my pant leg was tight. I showed the bite to a co-worker, and he agreed that it looked a little strange, but still I didn't think much of it. Still later, we went out to dinner in NYC with friends. By this time my leg really felt odd. Again I inspected the bite, and my friends agreed that it looked weird. By the time we arrived at our stop on the railroad late that night, I couldn't walk. Bob and the conductor had to help me off the train and down the escalator from the platform. We took a cab home, and I foolishly went to bed, but I couldn't believe an insect bite could be anything serious.

In the morning, I couldn't get out of bed. A friend who was going to help with a barbecue we were having that day arrived, and she looked at my leg, called her mother who was a nurse, and she told me to get to the emergency room immediately. I didn't have health insurance at my crappy fairly new job in an artists' representative's office, and although I was reluctant, by this point I had no choice but to take the advice. With help, I put on shorts, even though I needed a shave there was no way I could shower, and pants were out of the question by now. I sat in the emergency room with my dark purple, throbbing leg, while almost every other patient was taken ahead of me. Their lacerations and broken legs just seemed more serious to the staff, I guess.

When the doctor looked at my leg, he was stumped, but he said it was very serious. In fact, he wanted to admit me. The emergency room was filthy, it seemed to me that they didn't know what was wrong (and besides, it was only a bug bite!), there was my lack of insurance (and salary so low that eventually paying the bill seemed an impossibility), and plus, we were having people over for a BBQ! So I refused to be admitted. Instead, I got a topical ointment, instructions to soak and elevate my leg, and a prescription for antibiotics.

Days passed and my leg got no better; in fact, it may have been worse. I visited an upscale dermatologist, who told me from behind a serious sunburn that I had to pay $275 to become his patient before he would treat me. I refused his generous offer, and hopped on one leg the several blocks back home (in addition to little money, we had no car). I looked in the yellow pages, and found the name of a general practitioner named Dr. Santos who charged only $25 for an office visit. He took me right away. I remember sitting in his shabby office, where his only staff was a nurse/receptionist. He examined my leg, declared that I had been bitten by a fiddleback spider, and said that aside from the antibiotics, all the treatment I had received so far had been wrong. My leg should not be elevated or soaked, although I would have to stay off it for quite some time, and not move around too much. He gave me a prescription for some little pills that he called anti-venom, and he said that they would make the poison leave my system. He said it was likely that my immunity would be impacted by the episode for some time. Dr. Santos was from Puerto Rico, and so I figured he knew about exotic spiders.

My leg healed with no problem, and what he said about my immunity wound up to be true - for several years I caught every cold and flu that went around. Later I researched fiddleback spiders, and discovered that they are the same as the brown recluse, which is not commonly found in New York. However, in the past few years, I have heard of maybe five other incidents, mostly in Long Island and one in Schenectady. The Schenectady case was in a trucker, and the speculation was that he had been bitten while on a trip.

I have great respect for scholarly research - and the spider guy in this article does seem to have the stats. I admit I did not see the spider that bit me. But my leg looked exactly like pictures I have seen of brown recluse bites, and my symptoms were the same as those listed. I certainly didn't have cancer, and believe me, there is no way this was poison ivy. In my experience, sometimes simple wisdom is more powerful than stacks of studies.

Anyway, my money - all $25 of it - is on Dr. Santos being right. I will always be thankful to him for saving my leg - and maybe my life - in his humble practice. And after that I really took the "stay off the dunes" signs to heart.

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